Day 166: 3 things

YOUNGER (hanging on front door-knob): Doorknobs have been around for a long time. Were they around in the time of pirates?

D-R: [unable to think of specific incidents in history featuring pirates and doorknobs but deciding that this is because doorknobs are a landlubbery kind of thing, and not because doorknobs and pirates did not co-exist in the same historical moment]: Ummm … yes, I’d say so.

This turns out to not really be true, in the sense that I took “the time of pirates” to refer to their heyday, like the 17th and 18th centuries, and it turns out, to my shock, that doorknobs don’t seem to have been invented until the mid nineteenth century. I am honestly still in shock about this.

YOUNGER: Are there pirates now?

D-R: Yes, but they don’t say “Arrrgh” and have a parrot on their shoulder. They more just have a boat and steal stuff.

YOUNGER: So being a pirate is basically just having a boat?

D-R: No … not everyone who has a boat is a pirate.

She ponders.

YOUNGER: OK, so being a pirate is basically 3 things: if you’re missing an eye, you kill innocent people, and you have a boat, then you’re a pirate.

D-R: The missing an eye bit isn’t essential but …. sure, that’s close enough.

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Day 165: His milkshake brought all the amanuenses to the yard

La Bonavita is reading Paradise Lost for the first time. I am enjoying my role as in-house Miltonian.

 

Scene: driving along Sunset, La Bonavita at the wheel, me in the passenger seat.

La B: What was that thing that Milton said?

D-R: (repeats slowly) “That thing that Milton said.”

La B: You know, that thing.

D-R. (repeats again, with sarcasm) “That thing that Milton said. You know. that thing.” (flustered) How am I supposed to know “that thing”?

(desperately trying to dredge up some Miltonic pearl from mind in order to prevent mantle of Miltonic authority from slipping away)

Yeah. I don’t know.

(a few minutes pass in silence)

D-R (triumphantly) “Milk me”!

La B: What?

D-R. “Milk me!” was a thing he said! [1]

La B: …..???

D-R. So was that it?

La B: Er, no, that wasn’t it.

(a few more minutes pass.)

La B: I remembered what it was! “Reason is but choosing.” [2]

D-R. Oh. Yeah. (Scowling). That’s also a thing he said.

milkshake-song-kelis-milkshake

Notes

[1] “He rendered his studies and various works more easy and pleasant by alloting [sic] them their several portions of the day. Of these the time friendly to the Muses fell to his poetry; and he waking early (as is the use of temperate men) had commonly a good stock of verses ready against his amanuensis came. Which if it happened to be later than ordinary, he would complain, saying he wanted to be milked.” Anon., The Life of Mr John Milton, c. 1686. Cited in The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, ed. John Gross, p.16.

[2] “When God gave him reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing; he had been else a mere artificial Adam, such an Adam as he is in the motions.” From Areopagitica, 1644.

 

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Day 164: in which the younger displays enviably robust levels of self-esteem

The younger is chattering exuberantly at an ear-splitting level about two inches from my face. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly in an attempt to calm my suddenly rapidly rising heart-rate.

“Could you please use an inside voice?” I say slowly, in the steadiest, least agitated tone I can muster.

She looks at me quizzically and shrugs her shoulders:

“That’s just the way my voice is, Mom.”

 

***

Later I walk into the kitchen and see muddy footprints all over the floor.

“Hmmm. It looks like someone dragged mud in all over the floor,” I exclaim.

She waltzes in.

“Oh, that was just my feet,” she declares, reassuringly.

 

***

In the afternoon we have a dance party in my bedroom, just her and me. It is hard to say whose jaw drops lower at the sight of the other’s dance moves. Hers involve break-dancing style attempts to spin on her head that end in dramatic crashes to the floor.

THUD!!!!

“Sweetheart, are you OK????”

“Yes! [popping right back up like a jack-in-a-box] It didn’t hurt at all!”

Mine involve standing in one place and shaking my hips, a feat that, judging from the expressions of awe it elicits, is by far the most impressive thing I have ever done in her presence.

Mom!!!” Her eyes are wide and her tone is at once scandalized and reverent: “how do you shake your booty like that????”

“Oh, just practice,” I say, nonchalantly.

 

***

Later, tired of dancing I flop on the bed.

“Mom, I’m pretty sure I could shoot a bow and arrow with my feet.”

“Are you?”

“Yeah. Because I can pick up this with my feet (picking up,* with her hand,* a tube of moisturizer).”

“Uh-huh.”

And I can stretch a rubber band with my feet, so ….”

She trails off and shoots me a self-satisfied look that says, plainly, that to offer any further evidence would be gratuitous.

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Day 163: a permanent black

“I had a dream about this weird word,” I announced at the breakfast table.

“Was it ‘inconspiculous?’ asked the younger.

“‘Inconspiculous?’” I repeated. “No. It wasn’t ‘inconspiculous.’” I pause. “Nor was it ‘inconspicuous.’”

“Was it ‘levitation?’ asked the elder.

“No, no,” I continued, impatiently, “it was an imaginary word … I think. I mean, it was a word I’d never heard before, and in my dream I was like, huh, I’m gonna look that up in the OED when I wake up, as you do. And I kept repeating it to myself in my sleep over and over so I wouldn’t forget it. And now I can’t remember it. But it’s on the tip of my tongue, I feel like it’s about to come back to me, I know it’s still there.”

Moments later, it rose to the top of my consciousness.

“Oh! It was ———!” I said. I repeated it to myself. It sounded right. “Huh. ——–,” I said again. “Yeah, that was it. I wonder if it really is a word! I’m gonna look that up after I drop you at camp.”

What came next was probably inevitable.

Right after dropping them off I sat down at my computer. And the word was gone from my mind. What remained was only the vague sensation that it began with a b and that the first syllable rhymed with “meh” and that it had three syllables altogether. I felt in my gut that the word was kin with the words jellicle and blefescu. But I also felt it had the air of a London garden square, like Belgrave or Grosvenor. And I had that sense of sureness that you only get from dreams that I had unconsciously intuited, no, divined in sleep a deeply profound word, the identity of which the OED would now disclose to me, and that it would unlock some kind of LIFE-TRANSFORMING REVELATION.

So I found myself engaged for some, embarrassingly long, period of time in the ludicrous activity of looking up made up words in the OED. At this point, I wouldn’t even remember what any of those words are, except that they are recorded in the search history of the OED home page that I have permanently open in Chrome, so that if I type in the letters “ble” the words blefescle, blefiscle, bleric, and blericle show up.

None of these are real words.

Blericle was the one that seemed closest to the dream-word. I did discover the real word belleric through these searches, which, fascinatingly, refers to “the astringent fruit of Terminalia Bellerica, also called Bastard Myrobalan, imported from India for the use of calico-printers, and used for the production of a permanent black” (OED).

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Day 162: baggage

“ … anyway, I could just tell. There was just an air of fustiness about the way he wrote that said ‘British old man’ to me,” I concluded authoritatively.

La Bonavita stared at me quizzically. “You have a lot of baggage around being British, don’t you?”

“Umm, no, no I don’t,” I said, frowning.

“Yes you do. You don’t even really like to consider yourself British,” he said calmly.

“What?” I was vexed. “Why would you think that? I feel more British than I feel … anything else. What, you think I feel American?” I fairly spat out the word.

“No, but you don’t really identify with British qualities. And you have all this—” rolling his eyes, “—class baggage.”

“If you mean I have … feelings about class, well, yes, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel British—”

What I should have added at this juncture is that “having feelings about class” is surely the very quintessence of ‘feeling British.’ But in the moment I lacked the presence of mind.

“—what, you’re saying I can’t feel British while also feeling ambivalent about certain aspects of Britishness? Don’t you feel ambivalent about being American? You should do!” I added, severely.

“And anyway,” I continued, “I do identify strongly with many British things. Like …. like being a Londoner! I identify very strongly with being a Londoner.” On this I was adamant. “And … a lot of other stuff too.” [1]

La Bonavita listened placidly.

“Why are you being so defensive? Just admit you have baggage: you have baggage about being British just like I have baggage about being from New England. It’s fine, we all have baggage!” he said, cheerfully.

“I don’t. Have. Baggage,” I said, wondering why my effort to affect an air of nonchalance sounded so shouty.

He paused as if summoning the strength to break something to me.

“Look,” he said, earnestly, “you left England and you don’t like Downton Abbey.”

He fixed me with his best trust-me-I’m-a-doctor-stare laced with the barest hint of wickedness, and then cocked his head ever so slightly.

“I’d call that baggage.”

 

 

Notes

[1] Now that I have time to reflect, I’ve been thinking of other “British things” I identify with. So far I’ve come up with: a fondness for tea, gin and tonics, Wimbledon, and James Bond, and a kind of reflexive need to repudiate or distance myself from expressions that seem too pat. I’m not saying the British have exclusive rights to cringing at the clichéd or banal but rather that we have a peculiar way of performing our disdain. Bear with me and allow me to elaborate.

When I was in London over the summer I was reading an article in The Guardian (as you do), when I arrived at a sentence that began, “not to be trite, but …” Upon reading this, I was struck by two realizations: 1) the fear of appearing trite is a British-chattering-classes-nightmare, and, 2) “not to be trite, but …” is a perfectly British way of expressing that fear. My inner Brit tells me pretty insistently to preface every utterance I make with the words, “not to be trite, but …” (e.g., “not to be trite, but, now that I have time to reflect …). Most of the time I stoically repress this urge because the only thing worse than triteness is preciousness, and preemptively fending off charges of triteness is surely preciousness of the highest order.

I want to write a whole post called “not to be trite, but …” but, in the meantime; when I was looking for the article I read over the summer on The Guardian website, I discovered something funny: there are a lot of articles in The Guardian that use the word trite. I limited my search to August and September of this year and discovered that the word trite featured in nine Guardian articles in that period; by contrast it appeared in only two New York Times articles in the same timespan.

I know this doesn’t prove anything profound. Maybe the word trite is less frequently used in the U.S.; and so what if it is? Doesn’t it just suggest that writers in the U.S. turn more readily to some synonym of “trite” like “hackneyed” or “sentimental” or “corny”? (For what it’s worth I did a similar search for the word “corny” and found the numbers were more comparable between The Guardian and The New York Times). Maybe that is all it means. But that’s not the explanation that rings true to me, particularly when I note the painfully familiar way in which many of the articles in The Guardian use the word trite.

Here are some examples: “It’s difficult not to sound trite …”; “The theme may seem trite, but …”; “It might sound trite, but …” I’ve singled out these cases because in each of them the author anticipates and deflects the charge of triteness. By voicing the recognition that she skirts close to triteness’s territory, the author establishes a bond with the reader by implying that they share an understanding of the inherent risks in expressing a sentiment that in its very artlessness may ring false. The author voices this recognition in order to disarm the reader; the author hopes her candid acknowledgment of her vulnerability will move the reader to credit her with a discriminating understanding of where the line lies between true and false sentiment. Obviously anyone can have a phobia of appearing trite (you don’t have to be British, it just helps). Nonetheless, this particular rhetorical move reflects a core belief that feels British to me. This is the core belief that sincerity and pathos are debased currencies, a belief that necessitates saddling any expression of an oft-thought sentiment with endless caveats and qualifications. Now that’s baggage.

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Day 161: pitching in

desk

7:30 am. I look around the room and groan.

“What is it, Mom?” asks the elder.

I sigh. “It’s just that I have so much I need to read today. But this place ….” I gesture helplessly at the carnage of half done homework, dirty socks, granola bar wrappers, Pokémon cards, stuffed animals, library books, power cords, random pebbles, and Japanese food erasers strewn on every available surface. “It looks like a bomb hit it.”

The elder comes up to me and gently puts his hands on my arms. “We can all help,” he said. “We’ll all do it together when we get back from school—it probably would only take fifteen minutes if we all do it.”

I gaze at him in awe. “Oh my God, yes. Yes. Max, that’s a wonderful idea and it’s so so lovely that you suggested it! Honestly, I feel so much better already!”

“It should be a daily thing!” he adds.

“Yes!” I say giddily. “It’ll be so easy if we all pitch in together!”

We hug each other tightly.

Suddenly I notice the younger scowling at us. “What?” I say.

“I think,” she says, “I think there should be a sign-up-sheet.”

 

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Day 160: siblings

This morning I find a gummy bear on the living room rug.

“I believe this is yours,” I inform the younger.

She takes it from me. Then she runs out of the room yelling “Sucker!” at the top of her lungs.

“Max! SUCKER! This is MY gummy! This is MY gummy! SUCKER!”

There is a pause during which I suspect the elder is inspecting said gummy.

Then I hear him say to her disdainfully, “you know this gummy has hair on it, don’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s MY hair!” she crows in triumph.

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