THE GAME OF THE NAME

Webster defines a name as “a word or phrase by which a person is known, called or spoken to or of.” Based on that, each of us could have a dozen names on any given day.

It’s rather heartwarming that every one of us, on our first day as a living, breathing person, went by the same name, “IT”.

“So what is IT, a boy or a girl?”…..”What are you going to call IT?” Of course “IT” is a handy temporary title, but everyone should have the good manners to drop “IT” as soon as the extended family’s heated debates are over and the birth certificate name is finalized. But there will be exceptions.

“What is it?” the mailman asked one day peering into my carriage. “It’s a baby, you idiot!” my mother replied and hit him with her purse. Before my second birthday when my features fell into more or less normal proportions, my mother wore out three purses.

Our next fits-all label is “Baby”. Even after we’re given official titles to go with our surnames, there is a tendency to continue the “Baby” reference. If you were the family’s last born, you may never shake it completely. When they’re interviewing your mother after your appointment to the Supreme Court or winning the World’s Heavyweight Boxing title, she will insist on adding that you, the gray-haired judge or the hulking prizefighter, are the “baby of the family”.

Every day of our lives we are addressed by categorical titles because humans insist on creating names for everything and everyone. For years we respond to “Hey kid” or “Little girl”. Later we graduate to “Sir” or “Madam”. If you want to test a very old universal name, the next time you’re in a crowded library count how many people look up when you say, “Pssst!”

Nicknames are popular with boys anxious to trade in their conventional or possibly strange given names for something more jaunty like “Butch”, “Duke” or “Swifty”. It’s a gamble though. Every Donald I knew in grammar school became “Ducky” thanks to Walt Disney.

There are some nicknames that are definitely unjaunty and unwelcome. Between the ages of 10 and 20 I fought my way through a half dozen of them. I won’t reveal them now. I’m getting pretty old and I’m not as fast on my feet anymore.


ANCIENT UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT

Archaeologists investigating ancient caves in Altamira, Spain and Lascaux, France and digs along the Yellow River as well as various Beverly Hills and Manhattan sites, have declared the cocktail party has been a revered tribal ceremony since Paleolithic times and is still thriving.

Recent digs have turned up fossilized hors d’oeuvres, tiny stirrers made from reindeer shinbones, sabertooth tiger incisors and puzzling cave drawings of staggering hunters. Medical researchers at Paleolithic burial mounds have recorded findings that indicate a sharp rise in heartburn and hangover incidence during the Cro-Magnon era.

Some sociologists maintain the cocktail party has its roots in the human psyche as an intrinsic activity of the species and Mankind can no more eliminate it than it can abandon other reflexive habits like golf, bingo and tax evasion.

The very first cocktail party was probably accidental. Someone discovered a neglected bowl of apple juice at the back of the cave and took a tentative sip of the fermented brew. “It don’t taste like the regular stuff,” he probably announced, “but it’s not all that bad. I think I’ll have another.”

By the time of the Roman Empire, cocktail parties had gotten out of hand. Happy hours were lasting longer and longer and the party-goers were crankier and crankier the mornings after. It all ended with that enormous hangover we call “The Dark Ages”.

The succeeding barbarians weren’t much better behaved. Visigoth cocktail parties, for instance, would begin jovially, but eventually the revelers would get violent and start striking one another with whatever weapons were handy.

Nowadays, the violence has been largely eliminated, but some of the terminology has survived. “Club” for instance is a noun (not a verb) that we associate with cocktail venues and the bubbly mixers. The parties, themselves, are referred to as “bashes” and “drinking bouts” The rarer term of “brawl” might indicate actual Visigothic violence.

In an attempt to add elements of grace and beauty, an additional calming term has been invented: “The Cocktail Waitress”. We feel confident it will work provided Visigoths are not invited.

NITPICKERS GO HOME!

Whenever you feel you cannot, in all honesty, say something complimentary, then by all means, tell a polite lie. Unless you’re a safety inspector for the Bridge and Tunnel Authority or the Nuclear Energy Commission, there is no need for you to point out every tiny defect you happen to spot.

“I think I have the world’s best dog!” (“I agree, he’s one of a kind and should be in the movies!”)……”What do you think of my new wallpaper? (“It’s quite beautiful. I saw something very similar during my White House tour.”)

You’ve just made some people happy. Your compliments will be memorized and repeated often. Isn’t that what we were sent down here for? These merciful fibs will certainly not appear on your heavenly rap sheet.

If a woman is so neglected she has to ask, “How do I look?”, we should realize she knows exactly how she looks, including the location and extent of every faint wrinkle, every trace of a blemish. What she is really asking is, “In spite of all that, do I still look pretty?” Your reply has got to include the word “beautiful”.

The world does not need more amateur inspector generals. You know the type: The guest at your barbecue who spends the afternoon commenting on your crabgrass and maligning your marigolds. After his last insulting remark about your menu, you lather his hot dog bun with “Fernando’s Fuego”, a rather challenging condiment which he attempts to malign but unfortunately, he has temporarily lost the power of speech.

These dedicated fault finders are afraid if they don’t call attention to every flaw and freckle, every smudge and smear, the world will miss another chance to become perfect. “Well, you wanted an honest answer, didn’t you?” they will ask after making one of their devastating remarks.

But most people don’t want a completely honest answer. Like the 1940’s favorite Johnny Mercer sang back then, “You gotta AC-cent the positive, ElIM-inate the negative….”

I once spent a month building a garden shed and in a weak moment, asked a dedicated critic what he thought of it. Instead of saying something complimentary or at least non committal, he felt obliged to say, “There’s no doorway. How the heck are you supposed to get in and out?”

Of course I knew there was no doorway. It was the main bug I had to eliminate. I certainly didn’t need his negative response after my many hours of sawing, hammering, swearing and bandaging. Fact is, I didn’t know how to make a doorway back then. I’d missed “Doorways 101” in manual training class when I had Chicken Pox, but I got a B-plus for my birdhouses and doghouses which don’t need doorways.

I realize now, there’s something ironic about a blog that criticizes critical people, so I’ll stop here. By the way, what do you think of this blog?

LOOK WHO’S STALKING

As northern winter sets in, many a hard-working man will return from his labors at dusk, exhausted, hungry and looking forward to something good on the table. In too many cases that will be the man’s hysterical wife and possibly a young daughter up there as well. He’ll know what that means: There’s a mouse in the house!

When that happens to you, mister, forget about your supper. You had a tough day and you were hoping to be the pampered bread winner, but you have other roles to play now. First, there is the reassuring father figure, soothing and coaxing the terrified pair down from their perch, promising if an enraged mouse should suddenly leap out from his hiding place, you will throw your body between them and his gaping jaws.

Next, you’re the investigator questioning the panic-stricken witnesses. “Where were you standing when the mouse attacked?”…….”After he grabbed the broom from your hand, in which direction did he run?” None of this helps. They’ve retreated to inside the hall closet now and all their replies are muffled.

Finally you’re the famous safari hunter following the spoor. Ignore the mashed potatoes and scattered broken dishes on the kitchen floor. These are the results of panicky random shots and misfires. But there is a definite pattern of cutlery, pots and half-cooked pork chops near the radiator. Your prey is definitely holed up there, possibly wounded and dangerous.

This is the moment of truth! If this beast eludes you now, you will have to set a dozen traps and eat all your meals at McDonald’s for a month. Steeling your nerves, you grasp your trusty weapon, a finely balanced 11-EE slipper and move in. “Yah!” you shout feeling the primeval instinct of the hunt and the primeval shock of pain as your knee collides with the radiator.

The prey is now the predator and he is charging as you take aim. “WHAM!…WHAM!…WHAM! Three rapid shots from your high-powered Montgomery Ward slipper and it’s over.

Back at base camp outside the hall closet you struggle to appear modest. “You can come out now. I’ve taken care of him.” The door opens slightly. “Are you perfectly sure? ” They emerge cautiously.

“Absolutely!” you reply holding up your trophy.” But that was a very big mistake. They reenter the closet swiftly, tangling with the overcoats and umbrellas.

“You’ve killed him! they shout . “You weren’t supposed to kill him!”

“What were my choices? The animal shelter doesn’t take mice and he was native born so I couldn’t have him deported.”

“The poor little thing. His mommy will be so sad,” your daughter cries.

“If his mommy shows up tomorrow, dear, jump up on the table and scream your condolences.”

HOME ALONE (or maybe not!)

It always gets worse this time of year with the long dark nights when I spend too much time watching scary TV dramas. It was much better back when the house was crowded with family, pets and visitors. Now I’m too often a home-alone guy. The trouble is I’m not completely sure that I am home alone

There are too many mysterious noises in the dead of winter. (I hate that expression. It’s probably a Hitchcock movie title.) Right now I’m certain I can hear one or two people crawling around in the back bedroom. Well, maybe not people, but something is crawling around in the back bedroom.

Ever since I was a boy I’ve been able to hear and even see things no one else can. It probably has something to do with my being almost completely Irish. My few Neanderthal genes could also be involved.

I’m not bragging. I’d much rather not be able to hear and see things no one else can. As I reached manhood and eventually fatherhood, I was sometimes asked to explain strange phenomena to a nervous wife and frightened children.

“That’s just the normal settling noises of the house cooling down at night,” I’d say. But down deep I’d be wondering who or what was dragging chains across the attic floor.

Sometimes they’d beg me to go up and check “just to be sure”. I’d try to laugh it off, but they would insist. “Well, if it would make you sissies feel better,” I’d say as I nonchalantly climbed the attic steps. But during one attic investigation a trespassing squirrel leaped out at me from behind my moth-eaten jogging suit and I completely lost it. The family was not convinced my blood-curdling scream was just a joke.

The things I “see” are not as clearly defined as the things I hear. For instance, there’s no question about the crunching sounds I heard last night in the cellar. I didn’t go down there but I’m sure they were in the washer-dryer area where a dozen of my socks have mysteriously disappeared.

My spooky sightings are less easily explained, being extremely brief peripheral glimpses of swift, shadowy UFO’s (Unexplained Frightening Objects). For example, an hour ago I had a micro-second peek of “something” that raced along the living room wall and disappeared behind the couch. It was quite long and possibly purple. It might have a large head or perhaps it was wearing a derby.

I had a dog, until recently. I hoped he’d keep me company and investigate the creepy stuff, but old “Shakey” heard twice as much as I did and was always growling at dark corners. He ran away last week as we were watching “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Maybe that’s him howling on the back porch now, but that’s not Shakey behind the couch. He’s small and mostly white and never wears a derby.

As I write this the ominous sounds increase. I hear whispering in the dark dining room, marching footsteps on the back porch and a moaning behind the couch. It has never been so……..

SECURITY NOTICE: This blog was posted one minute past midnight. The required password was not included and efforts to reach the author have been fruitless. A phone call to his official number was answered with maniacal giggling.

A CHRISTMAS ENCOUNTER

The following letter was sent to me by a gentleman of advanced age who wishes to remain anonymous. He asked me to publish it in my blog hoping the addressee will eventually receive it. I hope at least one of you out there knows the exact address. A retired elf, perhaps.

Dear Santa: Please forgive me for not writing in 58 years. You might remember in my last letter I asked for a pony and you brought me a cowboy suit instead. I forgave you for that long ago.

This is to thank you for the very big favor you did for me last Christmas Eve. I hope I didn’t complicate your busiest night of the year. That evening I’d had a quiet get-together with a few friends at a local coffee house to celebrate the holiday or “holy day” as it was once called.

Apparently the coffee was too strong since it affected my ability to concentrate and also to stand up straight. Emerging from the inn, I couldn’t remember what my car looked like, or even if I owned one. In any case, my condition ruled out driving, so I walked off through the falling snow in what I hoped was the general direction of my home.

Trudging down a wooded path I bumped into someone, a small boy, I thought, until I noticed his beard. He was wearing odd looking colorful clothes. Everything ended in points. I said, “Hello” and he answered, “Brixnitzl!” which I assumed, by his expression, was a plea for help with the big sack he was dragging through the snow. So I grabbed one corner and we pulled it down the path into a little grove.

That’s when I met you, Santa. I was sure it was you from the very first “Ho!” The reindeer, the sled and the elves clinched it and I realized I was having a close encounter of the Christmas kind. You thanked me for helping Johann retrieve the toys that had fallen off your sled and you asked why I was out walking in a snowstorm.

When I explained my predicament, you winked and said, “We’ll be glad to give you a lift, won’t we boys?” All the elves shouted “Brixnitzl!” which I knew by then was a friendly affirmative. However, I noticed the two lead reindeer (Dancer and Prancer?) were eyeing my bulk and wincing.

Santa, that was the most thrilling ride I ever had, flying over my home town in the hushed silence of a snowy Christmas Eve, broken only by an occasional “Ho, Ho, Ho!” and the huffing and puffing of the reindeer. I hope Prancer’s strain is healing.

I’m writing to thank you, but also because you’re only one of the two people certain to believe my story. Gene Newman promised to put this letter in his blog, hoping it will reach you through one of his many readers. (Well, he said he has many readers.)

I’m sure Gene believes my wonderful tale. He’s noted for his unbridled imagination. He believes equally and wholeheartedly in both you and the New York Mets.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Brixnitzl!

P.S.: About my 1964 letter. Please cancel that order.

THE DELICATE ART OF GIFT RECEIVING

About 2,000 years ago three royal visitors started something which has continued through the centuries. Some say it has gone too far.

Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar gave gifts to Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus who was sleeping in a manger. Saint Matthew tells us the visitors “offered” their gifts, but he doesn’t say they were accepted. Surely we can assume the young couple expressed gratitude and pleasure and sent the Wise Men away with warm feelings.

Some of us are so involved with giving at Christmas that we’re not very adept at being gracious receivers.

Next Christmas morning when you’re unwrapping a present from the love of your life, glance over at her or his face. Notice the look of anticipation, the nervous smile, the murmured “I hope you like it.”

While you’re fumbling with the ribbons and paper, think of what the giver went through: Making the decision; scrimping and saving; struggling through crowded stores and finding a place to hide this big box in a small apartment.

It’s your turn now. The gift is unwrapped. Maybe it’s something you never had the slightest wish to own. Let’s say, for an extreme example, it’s a moose head. You were hoping for an IPad. A Swiss Army knife or a N.Y. Mets jacket would have been fun, but instead there’s this scary moose head glaring up at you.

What do you do now? Your mouth is agape and your eyes are wide with astonishment. Quick ! Say something nice. She’s waiting ! You try shouting, “Holy cow, a moose head! Wait till the guys at the office hear about this!”

“I’m so glad you like it,” she says. “Remember how you studied the moose heads in the Maine lodge last summer? You said the moose is a noble animal. I got the idea then. It will be perfect for your den.”

You don’t remember what you said at the lodge. You do recall lounging around there and having a martini. You won’t have a den until Junior gets married and he’s in the sixth grade now. But still, think of what she went through to make you happy.

Her present is still unopened, but you’re sure it’s exactly the robe she’s been hinting at. You’d taken notes and memorized the ads she showed you. She will happily model it for you for a couple of hours on Christmas day, but then she’ll ask, “Does it come in any other colors?”

No matter. She will have a good time searching the shop for a suitable exchange. Maybe you can exchange the moose head for top grade fishing tackle.

Gift givers should avoid putting excessive strain on receivers. But there is still room for an imaginative approach. This year I’m giving each close friend a present that is both exotic and traditional. One that’s so closely related to Christmas, it will remind them of the joyous season throughout the year. I can hardly wait to see the looks on their faces when they open the gift boxes. “Holy smoke!” they’ll shout. “Imagine that! A two-pound jar of myrrh!”

I couldn’t afford gold and the shop was completely out of frankincense.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

The ad called for “People of good will and a Christmas spirit to join a caroling group, talent not important. I thought I’d fit right in.

But on the first rehearsal night when I was just warming up, they adjourned in mid-Tannenbaum and became evasive when I asked about the next meeting date. “Our plans are indefinite,” they said. “We might disband.”

“I don’t understand, ” I said. “Everyone was so enthusiastic and then we sing one carol and we might disband?” There was a lot of hemming and hawing about a city noise ordinance and then old Mrs. Higginbottom, our leader, asked me, “Would you classify yourself as a baritone, or a bass or, or …. what?”

“It varies, Mrs. Higginbottom. My voice teacher said I sometimes go from basso profundo to soprano on the same note.”

“You have a voice teacher? !”

“I did until her sudden early retirement, but what has that got to do with our disbanding?”

They all looked at Mrs. Higginbottom as she nervously twisted her tuning fork. “We find it difficult to work with your rather….er….unusual singing voice. Would you be interested in another part, like….like humming. We really could use a talented hummer.”

“Never could master that. Can’t whistle or play the kazoo either.”

I arrived ten minutes early at the next rehearsal, surprised to hear them in full swing. So I jumped right into the fa la la’s of “Deck the Halls” until I noticed I was singing a solo. I realized then the reason they’d stopped was that Mrs. Higginbottom had fainted and fallen into the piano. Another cancelled rehearsal and with Christmas just around the corner!

I received no more practice notices and began to think our little chorale was finished when I saw a tiny newspaper notice. The Higginbottom Carolers would be strolling that very night!

I caught up with them on Halsey Avenue singing “Good King Wenceslas” to smiling families standing on their front porches. I joined right in and at first thought we had a bass drum accompaniment, but soon realized the percussion sounds were caused by doors slamming. I was surprised to see when I looked around that Mrs. Higginbottom and the others were leaving, actually running down the road.

I decided to strike out alone, found a nice quiet neighborhood and began an emotional rendition of one of my favorite carols, “Silent Night”. I was just into the second chorus when I was interrupted by the arrival of several police cars.

I never found out what all the commotion was about with people running from their houses, dogs howling and policemen flashing lights around. Some said they’d heard the pitiful screams of a wounded animal. Others speculated it might have been a landscaper on a late leaf-blowing job or running his shredder, or both.

“Officer, you shouldn’t have used your siren. You frightened away whatever it was,” a woman complained.

“Ma’am, we didn’t use our sirens.”

“But I distincly heard a siren,” she replied. “In fact, I remember thinking it was off key.”

THE YULETIDE CHALLENGE

The most dangerous party is not the Communist Party. It is the office Christmas party. The Communist Party merely wants to rule the world, but the office Christmas party creates chaos, organizational upheaval, dyspepsia and, frequently, unemployment.

Last year’s Yuletide bash at the Whimsey Widget Company contained two typically volatile ingredients. First, there was the pretension of a democratic camaraderie in a group accustomed to a stringent caste system. When the second ingredient, alcohol, was added, the results were staggering.

Festivities began with a merry speech by Vice President Cuthbert Mainchance. In his rare appearances at the office, Mr. Mainchance usually acknowledges underling employees with a regal nod. But tonight he is a jolly elf calling out mostly inaccurate first-name greetings.

As the revelers smile politely at Mr. Mainchance’s feeble attempts at drollery, they reflect on his energetic rise to the top: how he had the forsight to befriend President Whimsey and the courage to marry his aging daughter. To say there is a warm feeling in breast of each employee for Mr. Mainchance would be an understatement. It is much warmer than warm. It resembles heartburn.

Mr. Mainchance does not now speak of boring business details. This is, after all, a holiday party and besides, he knows very little about the business and is not entirely sure what the company makes, but he knows, to the penny, what he makes.

He praises key employees like Simon Hartless, the office manager who he says “treats his staff like his own family.” Everyone nods agreement. Mr. Hartless’ family ran away several years ago.

There is also a polite bow to old Mr. Coote of accounting who has been with Whimsey Widgets longer than anyone can remember, including Mr. Coote.

Newcomers are welcomed and, Mr. Mainchance said, must be embraced into the bosom of the organization. The most recent hiree is young Miss Zowie, a stenographer. Two boys from the shipping department attempt to carry out the vice president’s order and are restrained by the security staff.

After yet another of the V.P.’s “in conclusions”, the audience gradually wanders off to the buffet table where there is a divided opinion on the quality. Some say it’s not as good as last year’s. Others maintain it’s comprised mostly of last year’s leftovers.

But the drinks are fresh and, according to Miss Zowie, so are the shipping department boys. She has locked herself in the ladies room. After his third Manhattan, Mr. Coote, who hardly ever speaks to anyone, is loudly muttering about a planned Caribbean trip just before the next audit.

Miss Zowie has accidentally set off the burglar alarm while climbing out the ladies room window. A police squad has burst into the building and is slipping and sliding on outdated hors d’ouevres. Cuthbert Mainchance, resenting the intrusion, stares down the intruders and turns once more to the few remaining bleary-eyed employees. He begins: “And in conclusion…..”


ANCIENT ACCOUNTS

This generation often expects too much accuracy from its Dad’s and Grandad’s yarns, especially from those of us with exaggerated memories of our youthful athletic episodes. Very often our tales are not perfectly true accounts of what happened, but what we storytellers believe should have happened.

Why not just let us ramble on with our edited versions of our “Golden Moments” like hitting the game-winning homer (If it hadn’t been thwarted by the umpire’s questionable shout of “Foul ball”!}

My “Winning touchdown account” is mostly accurate. I’m quite sure my left tackle’s block cleared the path to the goal line for our victorious ball carrier. All of that is true, but, admittedly, my account lacks complete details.

As the clock ticked off the tie game’s final seconds, I was hoping to stop one of the charging opponents between my galloping fullback and the goal line. But then I tripped on a loose shoelace and became a horizontal projectile. Three bulking enemy linemen stumbled and fell over me as the ball carrier zipped by and was later carried off the field as a conquering hero.

I was also carried off the field, semi-conscious and with a lot of footprints on the back of my jersey. The old “Gridirony” poem tells the story: “The lowly, hardworking tackle….rarely gets the glory that the fullback’ll.”

My embellished accounts can’t easily be challenged now because most of my old teammates are either living in Florida nursing homes or playing in the Pearly
Gates League.