Bounders, Rakes, and Cads

Bounders, Rakes, and Cads

Words change on us when we aren’t looking.

For example, I innocently used the word thug the other day, meaning to refer to a brutish person employed in bringing physical violence to those who failed to meet obligations, such as gambling debts; mobsters send out thugs, I would have said, as enforcers.  I could have said goon or torpedo, or lout or ruffian, or hoodlum, but thug is the word I have heard in that context for much of my life. I was told it derived from the Hindi and Nepalese word, thugee,  for a person who robs and murders

Then I happened to hear John McWhorter, an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia respond to the retraction of the word, thug, by President Obama and the Mayor of Baltimore, after having described the actions of those who looted stores following the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police as violence done by thugs.

“Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn’t need to. It’s most certainly is.”

If McWhorter is right, and I have no reason to doubt his assertion, I am once again several decades behind the times and apt to make blunders of similar insensitivity on a regular basis.  I’m cautious and increasingly aware that my presumptions about language get me into awkward situations, but I rarely have the wit to pause in mid-sentence seeking assurance that I haven’t casually stepped into blunderland once again.  Instead, I find myself using terms no longer employed in ordinary speech. My exchanges are with ordinary folks who, for the most part, are patient with my lapses into language last used when Teddy Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson ran as the nominees of the Bull Moose Party.  They are kind, or, I suspect, weary enough, to think happy thoughts while I ramble on in anachronistic incoherence.

Consider these bad boys, for example, the louts, persons whose intentions are not charitable; It strikes me that they actually fall into a number of sub-categories, each of which describes subtle but important differences of villainy.  For purposes of clarity, then, it may be salutary to consider the spectrum of words of disapprobation.

Ahem.

I use the word salutary to mean beneficial, but also to mean beneficial particularly in sitiuations in which the process might be unpleasant; no one says it might be salutary to eat ice cream. Vegetables, maybe.  In the same fashion, disapprobation is slightly stronger than disapproval but less condemning than, say, condemning.

Might as well start with louts.  Louts are oafish.  They may be primitives, brusiers, lugs, knuckle-dragging cavemen, or they may be hooligans, yahoos, or roughnecks.  Loutish behavior is churlish, uncouth and aggressive.  That said,  a churl, to be precise, can be a person lacking courtesy, but more properly simply means a person of low birth, a peasant.  Louts and churls may occupy the same space,but they are not the same species.

Similarly, to describe someone as a boor is to imply that their behavior is offensive, insensitive, and often intrusive, too loud and too persistent.  A swine comes into your home, puts his feet on your dining room table, belches, tells vile jokes, and breathes cigar smoke into your face.  Positively boorish.  Boors make poor company and should be avoided whenever possible; they may be off-putting, but not necessarily  immoral.

Cads and bounders, now there we have bad behavior.  These are identified by the purposefully self-aggrandizing things they do at another’s expense, although their actions are manipulative or exploitative, not generally physically threatening, with one notable exception.  Sexual predators are cads; they are bounders.

Despicable is despicable, but … there is one slightly less reprehensible character to introduce.  Known as the “rakehell” or rake, this reprobate is addicted to misbehavior.  Actually, the clinical description is ” habituated to immoral behavior”.  Oddly, the word “rakish” generally means jaunty or sporty rather than describing a roue, libertine or debauchee.  At his worst, a rake approaches caddishness, but at his best, he may be a merry rascal, a rogue running up debts, maybe gambling a bit recklessly, a profligate, prodigal, a spendthrift, ducking his debts.

That settled, how is it that there are so few terms that properly describe women capable of comparable perfidy?  Certainly the capacity for bad behavior is relatively evenly distributed among genders.  Even with the grudging admission that many of the terms used for men are attached to physical strength, it is a revealing question because in this descent into misbehavior, we are likely to find that derogatory terms used for women are most commonly words that shame rather than describe, thereby demonstrating misogyny rather than social censure.  One study found two hundred and twenty words that describe a sexually promiscuous woman and twenty that describe a promiscuous man.

So, all two hundred and twenty words are out-of-bounds, from doxy and trollop to hussy and vamp. Bad behavior is not gender bound, however, and the occasion may arise in which a female rapscalilion has to be called out.

At her worst, she’s a black widow, like Griselda Blanco, La Madrina, the Cocaine Godmother, Queen of Narco-Trafficing, responsible for several hundred murders, or Vera Renczi who poisoned her husband, son, and thirty other men, some of whom ought to have caught on before slugging down the arsenic aperetive.

The drop-off to the next level of misbehavior is startling, sliding from poisoner of afternoon tea or axe weilding murderer, the deadly black widow, to minx.  Women can be boorish, of course, but are more likely to be described as fishwives, loud and rude.  Look about us:  No oafettes, goonesses, she-bounders.

A college friend invented epithets on the fly, a very helpful skill in the heat of the moment, especially for those of us who have missed the memo on words that have changed meaning.

“I hope that phlegm juggling son of a reindeer finds open sores on his eyelids.”  It’s a benediction to be used with care, but until I’m corrected, injurious only to reindeer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is This Heaven?

Is This Heaven?

I watched The Field of Dreams again tonight.

No reason, really.  I’ve seen  it six or seven times, usually late at night, never intending to watch it all the way through, but losing track of time, staying up too late.  It’s fanciful, and fun, a little heavy-handed at times, but good-hearted and hopeful, and restorative.

And sometime, after the field has been built in an Iowa corn field, sometime after the field works its magic, sometime when dreams take hold, I tear up again, as I always do, and again I am surprised and confused by overwhelming emotion,  by hope and loss and reconciliation.

It’s about baseball, of course, and baseball is just a game, although for some of us there’s something sustaining about the game, not necessarily, the day-to-day ballgames, but the game itself.  It’s no accident that it was this game that first lived beyond the season in what were called Hot Stove leagues, allowing coots such as I am to huddle for warmth and swap strongly held convictions about what pitcher could mow down what batter in what situation, and who was the greatest, and which line up could prevail in any situation.  Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame infielder who holds the record for the highest batting average in the major leagues, .424 in 1924, put it this way:

“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

It matters that baseball keeps track of itself with an earnestness that other games do not.  Live ball or dead ball, spitball, raised mound, designated hitter – we know some things with certainty.  So, for example, we know Lou Gehrig batted in 185 runs in 1931 as part of the Yankees Murderer’s Row.  Why is that an important thing to know?  Well, the National League leader in RBIs this year, Nolan Arenado,  knocked in 133, and two years ago, Mike Trout took the American League title with 111.  It’s not the records themselves that are important, although it is difficult for purists when steroid use jumped up the number of home runs in a season; what matters is the conversation, the continuum, the community that experiences the game as an inheritance.

George Will, the crusty and often curmudgeonly political analyst, grows positively rhapsodic when writing about the game.

“Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals.”

The film touches on all of that but also allows the field to call to other, perhaps deeper, emotions.  It’s about dreams deferred, about investing heart and soul in unlikely causes, about faith, about making amends, about longing for gifts we could not dare to request.  It is about fathers and about sons and about the rituals that allow fathers and sons to connect with each other despite the strictures of being a father or a son.

I’m snuffling almost from the start but lose it all completely when Kevin Costner, who as a son had turned his back on a father who died too young, picks up a ball and asks a father returned, “You want to play catch?”

Here’s how poet Donald Hall recalls his own experience with his father.

”Baseball is fathers and sons.  Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard, violent and superficial.  Baseball is the generations, looping backward forever with a million apparitions of sticks and balls. . . . Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic song of birth, growth, age and death.”

It’s complicated.  I never had a father, never played catch.  That still hurts, could be the sort of wound that festers and embitters.  But I have sons, and I have a daughter, and I did play catch with them.

One summer I took one of my boys on a Hall of Fame pilgrimage.  We stopped in Cooperstown and Canton and Springfield, and South Bend.  On the way home, we stopped in Iowa.

We drove right up to the edge of that field, parked, took out our gloves, and walking toward the first base line, I heard what I had longed for without knowing it was a longing.

“Hey, Dad.  Want to play catch?”

In the film, players come to the field and ask, “Is this Heaven?”  and the answer they receive is “No, it’s Iowa”.

I sit today feeling grateful that for me it has been Iowa, or Michigan, or California, or Oregon, or wherever I am.

 

 

Ephemera And Other Fleeting Pleasures

Ephemera And Other Fleeting Pleasures

More than a year ago we moved from the place in which we had lived for eighteen years.  I started packing boxes a good ten months before the move, labeling everything, stacking cartons in the living room, thereby signaling that the time we had remaining in the home a son and daughter had grown up in was slipping by quickly.

Tempis Fugit.

Time Flies.  My favorite Classicists probably encountered the phrase in Virgil’s Georgics; I found my Latin in a comic book, as Archie tried to urge Jughead to hurry if he wanted a hamburger.

Yes, I said it.  I moved two boxes, one marked, “Archie” and the other, “Archie Double Digest”

Over the years I have collected matchbooks, bottle caps coasters, stamps, baseball cards, football cards, hockey cards, coins, marbles, issues of TV guide, yearbooks from schools I did not attend, signed baseballs, college pennants, theater programs, sheet music, toy soldiers, newspapers, comic books, the complete series of Science Fiction novels written by L. Ron Hubbard, old baseball mitts, and one Barbie doll – the Barbie Michigan Cheerleader.

All of that stuff belongs in the realm of ephemera, things that are not meant to endure, that are transitory, short-lived.  The word derives from the Greek, ephemeros, “lasting only one day”, which is not to say without value; in fact in odd cases, ephemera endures because it was not meant to endure.  The very fragility of the moment in which the thing came to be carries sentiment, of course, and memory, but also, dare I say, an ephemeral connection between us and the object.

OK, no need to wax philosophical about it; I just like stuff.

But here’s the rub:  I’m a mid-century modernist by training, inclination, and aesthetic.  I am pleased by uncluttered space. I enjoy leaving my keys on a table unburdened with flotsam; I am pained in encountering jumble.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has surely been a boon to those of us who are not exactly hoarders but inclined to hoard things.  As I look at that sentence, I am aware that there may be some denial still at work.

The method by which one begins to tidy, the KonMari Method, involves snappy tricks having to do with folding and organizing, which is great, but not my problem.  I can fold with the best of them, travel for a week with a small carry-on bag, keep the socks organized by color, shape, and age.  No, my problem was with the cartons still stacked in the garage, preventing its use as, well, a garage.

There was hope, however, as Kondo popularized a mantra that seems peculiarly effective for sentimentalists such as I am.  “When I touch this object (Archie Double Digest, for example) do I feel a spark of joy?”  It’s odd that the word “joy” works for me in a way that “worth” or “value” do not.

So, you ask, what got chucked?  The Archie Double Digests?

Sorry, I think we’re losing signal.

Actually, I chucked quite a lot, although the garage is still strewn with a remnant of joy sparking ephemera.  What remains, for the most part, are remarkable collections, none of them belonging to me.  My son and daughter have been up and out for a while, bounding into the lives they were meant to lead, and I am delighted that they have done so well, but … I can’t bring myself to pitch their childhoods.

Some of that reluctance comes from having had my childhood pitched, particularly the comic books and baseball cards that could now be providing me a retirement income.  More persuasive, however, are the sparks that still seem to fly when I open the tub containing my son’s collection of Star Wars and G.I. Joe action figures, the Pokemon card binders.  My daughter’s side of the garage has the Breyer horses, all things Disney, and, in tribute to the changing tides of youth, the Buffy and romcom dvds.

Tempis Fugit.

I confess that it’s not just joy that sparks when I consider my kids in their various stages of personhood; it’s a more complicated array of feelings.  There’s loss, and regret, and some guilt; I do wish I had been a better father to each in turn, although all three have turned out to be smart and authentic adults, capable and interesting.

What strikes me now as it did at each transitory stage is that no matter how the circumstances of our lives stood, no matter what developmental hurdles were in the process of being cleared, no matter what scrape or folly came into play, my sons and daughter were always fully themselves from the start.  I don’t mean personality, per se, because the more accurate supposition would be something like personhood. The same circumstance elicited completely differing responses from each one, making raising children less predictable, but finally far more rewarding.

Some of this comes to mind as I meet my granddaughter, a relatively new person who has been fully herself from the start and understand the frustration my son and daughter-in-law feel when well-meaning friends and relations question their parenting decisions, assuming similar parenting experience.  It also comes to mind as a speaker visiting our local university touts the notion that the true meaning of “genius” is the inherent unique essence of each person; genius, in his view, is not remarkable intelligence but our calling, the gift we have to give the world.

What’s the relationship between genius and the hermetically sealed bags of stuffed animals now sitting on shelves in the garage?  It’s probably a stretch, but I think the personalities of the most beloved  animals were very much connected with the core of each child’s genius.  The walrus spoke to one, a bear to another, and a bulldog to the third.  By spoke I mean called to, but I also mean carried out fairly extensive conversation at bedtime.  When I’m able to give myself any credit as a dad, it comes with remembering that the animals called to me as well, speaking through me to the children they protected.

Tidy is sometimes overrated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seasonal Affect

Seasonal Affect

Against all odds I have been able to withdraw almost completely from my long-established reliance on  (NOT an addiction to) carbs and sweets of all sorts.

Do I have the fleeting dream of cookies packed with brown sugar and a stick of butter?

Sure.

OK, often, but my days are filled with satisfying salads, intriguing salmagundi of fruits, and a cornucopia of meals almost entirely involving chicken in one iteration or another.  The occasional pang of deprivation is forestalled as I allow myself the occasional snack, a single square of dark chocolate.

Ah, life is good.

But, I found myself in line at the market, head of lettuce in hand, checking out just behind a friend, who, in the spirit of the season, had grabbed two huge bags of the Halloween themed Tootsie Roll assortment.

In my ordinary life, I would no more buy a bag of Tootsie Rolls than I would gargle with dry ice, but, by way of explanation, the assortment was not simply a bag o’ rolls.  In what must have been the result of candy merger at the highest level, Tootsie Rolls, large and small and Tootsie Pops of various chemically augmented flavors were nestled with small boxes of Junior Mints,  Junior Caramels, Dots, and Mini Charleston Chews.  That was more than enough to jar me into sudden helpless pining, even as I responded with the (literally) visceral memory of having eaten bags of that size and larger, by myself, in the first day after Halloween.  Not a pleasant reminder of the wages of gluttony.

To be completely transparent, the bags in question were not trophies carried home from trick and treating; no, I lived in a candy wasteland as a boy.  These were the remainders of the three or four bags I bought in order to prepare for the parade of kids in costume.  The parade came and went, my movement activated shrieking zombie had the desired effect on children now scarred for life, and the proffered bowls remained almost full.

What to do?

My breathtakingly level-headed wife suggested tossing the stuff out.  Reasonable but unlikely.  So, down it went, peanut butter cup after Hershey Bar, until the cloying glucose assault finally left me spent, on the couch transported by the infomercial for the cloth that absorbs an entire gallon of milk with one swipe.

The first phrase that springs to mind  might be, as a friend put it, “stupefied in an unseemly morass of excess”.

Today I am ok with my single square of dark chocolate.  Really.

I am left, however, with a fondness for holidays that is now bereft of gluttony.  How does a person of my age and station in life join in the macabre jollity of a holiday that is now primarily the realm of children and of teens with poor impulse control?

I could, of course, revert to the older, more authentic, entirely pagan rites and rituals surrounding the invasion of our fragile reality by the spirits, demons, and hobgoblins waiting to wreak a year’s worth of havoc on a single night.  “Double, Double” and all that.

Risky on every level and completely unmanageable should I inadvertently summon something nasty that wants my soul and my chocolate.

I could sport a costume of some sort and confess that I have been tempted to buy the full Sith Lord rig from time to time, but was so unnerved by running into a friend in costume last year, that I want to spare others the dislocation I felt.

A friend, a pretty amiable guy, admittedly given to odd japery, joined a group of us in discussion dressed as a fully tatted, clearly dangerous, Hell’s Angel.  It was the arms that fooled me.  He wore a vest and sported the kinds of fully illustrated “sleeves” I had become accustomed to seeing among serious bikers in town.  In addition, he had shoved a wig under a bandana and allowed himself a full six day’s growth of whiskers.  In retrospect, I have to admire his dedication to the role.

I’ve become accustomed to seeing all sorts and conditions of people in this small town, and his appearance would not have been uncommonly jarring had it not been for the whispering conviction that I knew this specimen from some other corner of my world.  Vampires, zombies, werewolves – all daunting.  But the shape-shifter, the transformed person, the child occupied by Pazuzu, witches appearing matronly, people turning into leopards, these scare me silly.

In the “real” world, we see the smile that hides menace, the lulling reassurance that brings  danger; there’s a part of our world-scan that reads the hints of deception.

So, when I saw my pal as a menacing stranger, my relationship with him shifted, just a bit.  Fool me once and all that.

I’ve taken this account some distance from the array of Tootsie products bagged for the holiday, but hope the rambling accounts for the curious compromises I’ve made this Halloween.

I’m not buying candy, not even wax lips, not buying cookies glazed with an orange  non-soluble starch, not buying cakes in the shape of ghouls.  I am not sending off for the Jack-the-Ripper dissection kit.

I have inflated Tigger, the vampire tiger, and have placed twinkling lights of orange and black in the windows.  There is still some question as to whether putting fake blood in the sprinkler system is a good idea.

Better check with my wife.

 

 

Ambience

Ambience

I’ll admit it.  Sometimes the well runs dry; sometimes inspiration is tardy.

I’ve asked trusted friends and relatives to pass on subjects they’d like to see me take on, and, while more than a few are unspeakably inappropriate, I have built up a nice collection of go-to titles, each of which is large enough or general enough to allow me to ramble unimpeded by the need for particular knowledge or, for that matter, facts of any kind. Fortunately, my sister-in-law opened a treasure trove of single word titles, including this one, on ambience.

You might expect that an article on ambience might reasonably consider those elements of space or structure surrounding us that elicit distinguishable feelings or emotions.

Fair enough, so let’s talk about cows.

Jarring transition?  Hold on to your Holsteins because I’ve been aching to give cows attention too long overdue.

I have been to Canterbury.  I have been to Lourdes.  I have been to Santiago de Compostela.  Wonderful, beautiful, inspirational, serene, and so on.

The pilgrimage that has changed my view of the world, however, was the trek to Thorncrest Farm in Goshen, Connecticut, home of the best chocolate the world has ever seen.  That is not just my opinion, by the way; the author of a guide to fine dining in Connecticut as published in Connecticut Magazine said, well, what I said, roughly.

The reader is perhaps familiar with terms such as single-malt in reference to the finest whiskey, artisanal in reference to fine comestibles, from cheese to beer.  Thorncrest Farm offers … fine artisanal “Single Cow Origin” chocolates, the foundation of which is their signature milk.

The identification of the Single Cow Origin is not mere hucksterism; each piece of chocolate is made from the milk of a single cow, and the properties and nuances of each cow’s signature milk are matched with the sorts of chocolates to be made.  The milk of each individual cow is available for purchase at the Farm, should a visitor care to develop the sort of “nose” one needs to become a true lactophile.

With absolutely no understanding of the choice I made, I stumbled into a realm of caramel fashioned with milk and cream donated (no coercion here) by “Daydream”.  I chose Daydream’s Butter and Sea Salt Caramel,  a confection described by Thorncrest:

 Daydream’s fresh cream, butter and milk  are carefully blended together to create these one of a kind caramels.  The Sea Salt Butter Caramels have a splash of sea salt on top for an ultimate flavor sensation of salty, sweet, buttery lusciousness.

They aren’t lying, and you can see they take chocolate seriously, which means they also take the care and well-being of their Single Origin cows very seriously. It is the ambience (see?) of barn life at Thorncrest that will occupy much of the remainder of this piece, but in order to understand the relationship between artisan and cow, you will need this description of how it happened that Daydream became the cow of caramels.

When a young heifer who we call “Daydream” ( a daughter of Sweet Dream)  calved and began to produce milk. “Daydream” already had her place in the history of Thorncrest having been shown for two consecutive years and remaining undefeated. Soon after entering production, on a early summer morning as Clint and I milked the herd, I took “Daydreams” milk pail and commented on the pure buttery color of her nights work. It is best described as an ivory buttery tone and a purity all its own. I immediately turned to Clint and said, “Caramel”. I quickly excused myself from the morning milking and went right to the creamery with “Daydreams” milk.  

The first principle in nurturing their cows so as to produce the finest cream and milk is in making sure they are free of stress.  As the farm’s owners and chocolatiers, Clint and Kimberly Thorn, described the efforts that go into assuring that each cow’s day is purely magical, my view of cows, milk, cream, and chocolate were forever changed.

The barn (this shabby term does not even come close to what the structure actually offers) is open to the public from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm, allowing visitors to meet the cow that provided the blend used in the chocolates they enjoy.  No visitors during the milking, however… might be stressful.

About the barn.  The Thorns constructed this immaculate haven in order to provide the most stress-free and comfortable experience a cow could imagine.  They observed feng shui, having the cows’ heads or tails aligned perfectly with the earth’s magnetic field so that they are facing either east or west, whereas the huge barn doors at either end of the barn are oriented north-south.  Among the pleasures of the arrangement is the cross-breeze that not only circulates, but which rises from under the cow and up into the barn’s rafters.

Upon returning to the barn from the pasture, the cows are fed hay that has been harvested from the farm’s field and tended with natural compost; no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers touch Thorncrest hay.  Each cow is milked into an individual bucket, and within fifty seconds of the milking, that milk is carried by pail, poured into a gravitational system so that the milk is never pumped or bruised, and then is gently and slowly pasteurized.

There is a downside to the process, as I suspect the ardent cow lover will have anticipated.  The unique “Zesty Lime and licorice” chocolate, for example,  can only be made with the milk of one cow, Queenie, and that means that should Queenie not be available for milking, no zesty lime and licorice.  Long live Queenie!

Quite aside from the meticulous care with which this extraordinary chocolate is created, there is something to be said in recognizing that stress has its consequences, and it is in that sense that ambience is most properly considered.  The Thorns labor with love and the result is astounding. Love doesn’t always involve tails facing east and west, but it seems to have something to do with noticing what brings comforting alignment.

I’ve spent some time romanticizing this day with cows, and I am aware that they are not frequently seen as belonging to the highest order of mammals.  As a possible corrective to the misunderstanding of the range of emotion available to cows, I am attaching a short video at the bottom of this article.  Cows released from the barn in the spring frolic with an abandon I should like to experience.

I don’t eat mammals, in part because the scene I pass along convinces me that we are related, cows, pigs, dolphins, dogs and I.  Mark Twain suggested that, “Man is the only animal that blushes … or needs to.”, and I can’t contest the observation, but my opinion is that an animal capable of joy shares something important with me.

 

 

 

 

Trying To Look Like Marlon Brando

Trying To Look Like Marlon Brando

I recently received one of those chain-gag letters that presented the way it was and the way it is, a waggish somewhat wry admission that, zut alors, time passes!

One of the suggestions was that my generation once wanted to look like Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor and now risk botched plastic surgery and gastric by-pass so as NOT to look like Brando and Taylor in their later years.

It’s a cute conceit, but off the mark.

Both Taylor and Brando were striking in their prime, not simply movie-star attractive, but charismatic, intelligent, vulnerable,tough, and world-wise.  As I consider the span  of their careers I am struck by their ability to bring depth to roles that might have been formulaic and mindless, even the saccharine string of Lassie films (Taylor) and the first Superman (Brando).  When given the roles they were born to play, Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin  Roof, Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Brando as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, they were transcendent, creating indelible characters that live outside of the films themselves.

Let’s get real.  Nobody actually tried to look like either one because each was a higher order of human, capable of a range of expression we mortals simply could not command. I might have done the Brando, “I coulda had class…I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am” for my own amusement, but actually look  like Brando?  I could buy a leather jacket, slouch, attempt to look simultaneously earnest and injured.  Not even close.

There were other very effective method actors and other great roles, but anyone who has seen the play of emotions crossing Brando’s face in the course of a moment, who remembers his taking Eva Marie Saint’s glove, in a gesture embodying pure masculinity and gentle affection, knows that there is a kind of kinesthetic genius we can admire but never replicate.  The oddest and closest comparison I can make with current actors is with Keanau Reeves’ singular ability to show dawning understanding without movement of any kind.

In Taylor’s case, she too was one of a kind; the color of her eyes was a distinctive blue, so pronounced as to be seen as violet.  She was born with dark double eye lashes, a mutation that made her seem simultaneously sultry and wise.  We later learned that she, like Judy Garland, had been robbed of childhood and made by the studio into whatever facsimile of contemporary popular star they felt they needed that year, but unlike Garland, she managed to arrive in each role with crackling, understated energy.

Her roles after National Velvet are unexceptional; despite MGM’s efforts to make her into a teen prom queen in a series of adolescent romantic comedies, Elizabeth Taylor was never truly a teenager.  In 1951, she married Conrad Hilton, Jr. who had already demonstrated an uncommon gift for debauchery, having had an affair with his step-mother Zsa Zsa Gabor.  Taylor was eighteen and divorced within a year.  That was the first of eight marriages to seven husbands; she married Richard Burton twice.

Both Brando and Taylor were uncomfortable when seen as sex symbols although both had libido to spare.  Brando’s liaisons and affairs were the stuff of tabloid frenzy. he fathered sixteen or seventeen children, one of whom, given up for adoption, is almost certainly Courtney Love’s mother, linking Brando with Kurt Cobain, an unlikely association at first glance, but an oddly appropriate meeting of two men of genius defined by their demons.

Yes, the last years of Elizabeth Taylor’s life were less glamorous.  She was guilty of the sin that plagues women celebrities; she aged.  Her personal life was occasionally sloppy and too public.  She stole America’s Sweetheart’s husband (Eddie Fisher, Princess Leia’s dad), and abandoned him for Richard Burton.  In her last years, she shilled for her own lines of jewelry and fragrances.  She befriended Michael Jackson. At the end, she was bloated, wheelchair bound, and defeated by congestive heart failure.

Nevertheless, we who had seen her as Maggie or Martha were neither surprised nor disappointed at the end.  Taylor was unique in that we saw what she would become even as we were transported by the role that she played.  She was more than believable in those parts; she inhabited them completely, every sloppy, generous, bitter, sensual, unpredictable moment.  She was a force of nature and a complete woman in an era in which few women were allowed to reveal the complex entirety of their persona.

In a profession known for grotesqueries of ego,  Brando was certainly among the most outrageous, and yet, as we watched him slowly destroy himself as Babe Ruth had, hot dog by hot dog, his body swollen, we knew that he was literally eating himself to death.  He weighed as much as three hundred and fifty pounds, but he was no Sydney Greenstreet, a smug epicure.  He dieted fiercely, lost weight, binged, gained, lost.  On the set of Mutiny on the Bounty, he went through more than fifty pairs of pants as his weight elevatored up and down; in the end, his costume had to be made of elastic material.   In later roles, doubles had to be used for full screen shots as his weight ballooned during the course of filming.

Brando’s appearance was widely observed and discussed; the tabloids loved to print pictures of him at his worst.  His role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather is considered his redeeming return to the pantheon of actors, and he played the part well.  “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully,” has now become the other Brando imitation I trot out from time to time, knowing I can’t approach his gravitas, but enjoying the plainness of speech with which a man of power offers a rebuke.

I have seen Apocalypse Now fifteen or twenty times and never fail to have the same reaction.  Critical language doesn’t do justice to the experience as the film is so over-the-top and painfully true-to-war that it can leave me shivering, but each time I screen the film, it is the image of Brando as Kurtz, shot so that his head appears a shard of uncertain and uneven light against primordial darkness.  He rubs his shining head with a hand that, in that moment, appears too large, too perfectly shaped to be genuine, and I find myself thinking year after year:

“That is the most beautiful man I have ever seen.”

 

 

 

Things We Said Today

Things We Said Today

I slipped yesterday.

A friend asked if I wanted a cookie, and I replied, “You’re darned tootin'”.  The slip was not in eating the cookie, a ginger snap, rich with molasses, and liberally sprinkled with sugar crystals, but in allowing one of the phrases from my childhood to emerge unbidden.

I try to do a daily geezer check, reminding myself that locutions once familiar can cause serious confusion in polite company.  I vividly recall a horribly dislocating moment when I used the phrase, “socked right in the puss,” in a class of 10th grade students who were appalled at the imagined act and my effrontery in evoking it. Equally apalling, apparently, was my description of wearing thongs on hot sand.  I meant flip-flops, they heard thong.

I don’t know exactly when the shift happened, although I could probably screen some vintage television and see when situation comedies stopped speaking my outmoded language.  And that is exactly the term to use – “outmoded”.  A la mode – to the fashion, fashionable, current, perhaps even “with it” and “hip”.  “Hep”?

Ah, there’s the rub.  I may not have access to language current enough to get traction in a discussion of dead language.  This is not a new phenomenon; I distinctly remember being called out for using the word “cool” in general affirmation of one plan or another.  My best guess is that I was about sixteen; I know it took place with regard to learning to drive, and I know the questioning adult was perhaps no more than ten years older than I was.

In defending my use of the word, I discovered that I had no way to include all that I absolutely knew the word meant.  I didn’t want to get into the distinction between beatniks and teenagers, and I hated the idea of imitating one of the contemporary teen idols.  I had not yet worked out whether to summon my inner James Dean or my inner Bob Dylan, and found myself simultaneously embarrassed and aggrieved.   Had I known my truth at that point, I would have said what I was inclined to say in almost every discussion with anyone not in my immediate circle of friends:  “You are too square to understand.”

OK, I know that “square” still has some purchase, but barely.  It’s a term I have not used for more than fifty years; it had degraded notably as I went off to college.  By the time it appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, it had already become a quaint self-referential anachronism, hardly needing the even more antiquated “Daddy-o” to make the point.

I grew up with electricity, the telephone, and a variety of labor-saving appliances, but still occasionally call a refrigerator the ice box, a bathroom the can or the John, and a person who works at Safeway a grocer – You know, a person who provides groceries, in the same way that a pharmacy dispenses sundries, and a laundry uses a mangle.

All of those brain spasms aside, I find listeners, including my own children, puzzled when I use the sorts of euphemisms common as I grew up, language that avoided what we called swearing, what would now be termed restrained expression. I heard my parents say Hell and Damn, but that was about it, and I’ll admit I was shocked when the words landed, usually when we were running late to an appointment, even though were going like sixty.  This was an age in which a conversation approaching things sexual, referred to the subject as talking about the birds and the bees.  Storks brought babies.  My mother expressed anger or frustration by saying Ships, or Sugar!  When really agitated, she might let loose with Son of a Sea Cook!  My step-father talked about S.O.B.s.  I fear one of them might have been agitated enough to spill the F word – Fudge.

I’ll admit that at my worst I  let loose with stronger language more frequently than I would like, but I still notice gratuitous swearing in films or literature, now realizing that those around me hardly hear the obscenities ringing.  My eldest son takes particular pleasure in presenting me with situations in which I have to acknowledge that I am uncomfortable with very strong language.  There is not one quotable line of dialogue in Magic Mike – XXL for example, although the plot is reasonably tame, assuming, of course, that gyrating male entertainers are simply miming pelvic disorders rather than succumbing to orgiastic excess.  HBO’s featured stand-up comedians?  I’ll use a word that has also fallen out of favor in saying that their material is too blue for me.  I’m still stuck somewhere between Mel Brooks and Don Rickles.

I think I’ve always been over-vigilant about words.

My first memory of living away from home in a boarding school in my fifth grade year was a roommate referring to someone as a half-ass.  I was shocked.  I was amused. I was awkward and uncomfortable, leaving myself open to years of merciless teasing.  At the same time, I was impressed with the metaphor/simile.

What a concept!  I was unable to get the image out of my mind for years and still find it the most physically pertinent description of a person virtually too far gone to correct.

Whereas it had been marginally ok to use the word crap to describe a generally unpleasant set of tasks or poor argument, ok to use rear, and butt,maybe heinie,  I knew that ass was out-of-bounds in the company of adults.

Unfortunately, I spent time with a number of JDs (juvenile delinquents), also known as hoods, who wore DAs (hair slicked back and up to look like a duck’s ass) who tried to act tough and suggested those who questioned our posture were cruisin’ for a bruisin’. They didn’t go for finks or flakes, drips or drags.  They were bad, they were boss, and they had it made in the shade.  Time spent with JDs did not rub off, despite my best efforts to dress slick with pegged pants and snap jack shoes.  I wasn’t part of the “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do” club either; I was somewhere outside the prevailing cultural orbit, using vocabulary I hoped would allow me to travel relatively unobserved.

So, having spent untold hours in the dark watching movies good and bad, many of which were made in the 30’s and 40’s, my default vocabulary is not simply outmoded, but positively archaic.

So, gangsters pack rods in order to grab some kale, long green, cabbage, lettuce unless they use a Chicago typewriter or Tommy gun to grab some moolah.  A con-man is a flimflam man, a grifter who knows how to chisel.  Maybe he runs a clip joint where marks get fleeced, a club where dizzy dames are cute as a bug’s ear with a set of gams that won’t stop, but  where the house dick stands ready to put the kibosh on a  Joe who tries to put his mitts, dukes, meathooks on one of the fillies.  A guy can buy a Jane a cup of java if he’s lousy with dough unless some mug has hacked a lunger or dropped a mickey in the joe.

On the other hand, as I look at terms I use with some caution these days, it strikes me that common lingo has become notably less colorful even as it has become more anatomically precise.  How can one compare “She’s hot” to “She’s the cat’s meow”,  “being uneasy” with “having the heebie-jeebies”?

By the way, proofing this piece will not be easy as the program I run to spot errors has underlined virtually every word I’ve written.

Hot dog!