Archive for the ‘Maturation’ Category

Life Among the Ancients

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Bingo chip> Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶Well, it’s December 29 again. That day of the year when I change the digits while filling out some questionnaire on the line that asks for my age. The numbers now are “77”. Isn’t that supposed to be a lucky number? No, no, I’m confusing Double Seven with “4” plus “3”, “2” plus “5”, or “1” plus “6”.
¶Ignorant as I am, I Googled “77” to see if it has any meaning besides a highway sign, a TV show, or a whiskey concoction; and, lo and behold, what did I find in a numerology blog but this supposed personality trait: “77 → Intelligent, inventive and spiritually wise.” Wow! That’s awfully flattering, but such spiritualistic readings usually are. And in Dawna Hetzler’s blog I found this explanation: “Seven is the number of completeness and perfection (both physical and spiritual). It derives much of its meaning from being tied directly to God’s creation of all things. According to Jewish tradition, the creation of Adam occurred on October 7th, 3761 B.C. (or the first day of Tishri, which is the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar)…. (He) turned seventy seven—double sevens. (He) must feel exuberant knowing (his) age is the number of completeness and perfection (both physically and spiritually).”*
¶Decades ago, I learned that there is a lot of difference between intelligence and common-sense. Intelligence might be an admirable attribute, but common-sense is more likely to put a roof over one’s head and food into one’s tummy. By the time I had graduated from high school I suspected I was sorely lacking in the latter, so, while I was studying Chinese at Yale, I went to the campus bookstore and bought a paperback biography of Alexander Hamilton. In a letter to my girlfriend back in Dallas, I mentioned that I was reading about Hamilton; and she responded, “It’s nice that you’re reading that book, but why?” I was too embarrassed to explain that I was hoping some of our country’s first Treasury Secretary’s touted common-sense might rub off on me.
¶“Inventive” is, to me, an ambiguous adjective. In its most common use it means able to create something uniquely useful out of raw materials: I never saw myself as an inventor. However, “inventive” can also be used as a synonym for “resourceful”, which denotes the ability to apply one’s wits toward solving a problem with extraordinary elements, material or non-material: now, that I can honestly claim to have done a few times.
¶“Spiritually wise” perhaps might be a positive attribute, but to apply it to one’s self seems, to me, a bit arrogant. I will acknowledge that much of my thinking time is spent on spiritual matters, particularly my relationship with the Holy Spirit. And some people in the past have characterized me as “an astute observer”, “insightful” and “wise”; but their perceptions were based on really minimal evidence; they had not witnessed the moments of my folly. Anyway, I freely and gratefully acknowledge that any “spiritually wise” comments I have uttered proceed not from me but from the Holy Spirit, which I hold dwells within anyone who accepts him/her/it. Sometimes, H.S. surprises even me.

* * * * * *

¶As the late comedian George Carlin noted in one of his sketches, children, eager to be older so they can be taller and supposedly freer from parental constraint, will push their age by saying “almost six” when they are only a few months past their fifth anniversary. And a rather tired old joke is that line about “she’s still 29 and always will be”.
¶We can have all the facelifts we want. They won’t change our internal structure or the way we emotionally react to the passing of time. Some of us manage to stay “happy” or at least “content” for many years beyond the point when others of us falter under regrets and diminishing horizons.
¶I am one of those who have been melancholic almost from childhood. Actually, melancholy can be a pleasant emotion sometimes. I remember how I used to get spiritually inebriated on a winter day when the sunlight pierced the ether at an angle lower than at other times of the year. Emily Dickinson was also affected by that “certain slant of light”, although she received its effect much more negatively than I. Strange, but then, Emily was weirder than I am.
¶As for the diminishing horizon, that has struck me particularly hard. Part of the problem is that I have too many interests: art, poetry, philosophy, theology, history, politics.  Every once in a while, I get excited about a sub-topic of one of those fields and say to myself, “I’ll read up on that (or engage in that) and become a notable expert, ‘blowing away’ every observer with my brilliant performance.” I have a bad habit of hopping from one interest area to another, hardly ever finishing a project to the degree it deserves. Then I am struck between the eyes, so to speak, by the realization that I don’t have the years needed to accomplish such sublime goals.
¶Then there are the regrets connected to personal relationships. Someone I read recently (but can’t recall who) said that indulging in regrets is destructive to the psyche. That well may be, but it’s practically impossible to retard the sudden bolts of regret that strike one’s mind. What is odd about them in my case is that many are about piddling slights, such as not replying to a letter when a reply would have been a deserved courtesy to the correspondent. Many other regrets, of course, relate to psychological or financial injuries I have inflicted; in most cases it is no longer possible to make amends because the hurt ones are no longer alive, or I don’t know where they are. As John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in “Maud Muller”,

For of all sad words from tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, ‘it might have been’.

* * * * * *

¶The worst of aging is “ageism”. This is a current issue in the United States, not exactly on a par with racism or sexism but still controversial. Now is not the time for delving into the general debate, which has more to do with jobs than with socializing. Since I am retired, the job issue holds only an academic interest for me; I am affected more by the social impact of aging, such as those occasions when I irritate customers behind me in the grocery store or café  while I try to count my dollars and coins.
¶There are a few positive benefits in graying. Most young folks will hold a door open for you, especially if you have a cane. They will also surrender a stool for you at a bar if the place is crowded. The problem with that is, in my case at least, they will try to herd you to a stool next to some other old codgers — to corral you in with your generation. I use the terms “herd” and “corral” on purpose because the two other elders at my favorite “watering hole” are a retired Border Patrol agent in his late 90’s and a retired cowboy in his late 80’s. Don’t interpret me amiss: both these fellows are decent, well-mannered gents. The problems are that neither one can hear very well, so talking with them is a chore from the get-go; and I have begun to resent being ushered to a stool beside or between them as though nobody else will be interested in my conversation. It could be that, in fact, no one will be interested, but I’m not ready to face that possibility yet. I will never forget the first time, during my early 30’s, when a young man in a Dallas pub addressed me as “sir”; it was like a flick of cold water in the face.
¶Well, I have to go see if that cake over there can support seventy-seven candles.
¶Happy New Year!

Finis

 ∗ Ms. Hetzler used the feminine pronoun (without mentioning any antecedent). Since I am male, I have changed the pronoun to masculine for context’s sake. Thus the parentheses.

A Drama of Self: The Tipping Point

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PHOTO CREDIT: MS WORD CLIP ART

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I’m curious: Do you see yourself as a character — in particular, the protagonist — in a screenplay? Ever reflect on the plotline, its beginning and all scenes since then, trying to figure out the other characters’ parts and the probable denouement? Or am I the only one so deeply solipsistic as to be constantly gazing on the internal screen? No, that can’t be the case, else the word “solipsistic” would never have been coined; they don’t make up adjectives applicable to only one person. Still, I find it difficult to imagine other people’s dramas, whether they be adventurous epics, tragedies or comedies, except as they tangentially affect my drama.

Many of us bloggers, I believe, use our blogs as candid diaries — electronic volumes open to the cosmic universe instead of little books hidden away in secret drawers. We can use them as depositories of our thoughts and feelings (mostly feelings), pretending that they are locked up in our computers, at first only peripherally aware that they are actually scattered across the planet and beyond. But then another part of us wonders how invisible and generally non-responsive readers perceive our outpourings. Mostly, all we can glimpse are their national flags. We are, then, self-analyzing split personalities.

So, desiring to be more honest than I have been during most of my life, I intend to relate the story of how I believe my solipsism became the major theme of an imaginary biopic; if one cannot repress a congenital tendency, then perhaps he at least can relieve the pressure by allowing it full expression, like steam from a teapot.

Going back to childhood meditations and actions, though I truly believe the habit really began that long ago, is beyond my capacity; the images are too fractured and vague. A clearer scene is more available in my nineteenth year, while I was in the air force and stationed on Okinawa, largest of the Ryukyu Islands. That was when I began to read very serious books for the first time; when, under the influence of the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell, I developed a longing to resolve all paradoxes; when I began to question my beliefs and especially every action’s motive. As a psychiatrist two years later put it, “You look at both sides of the coin and the edge too.”

An anecdote that quite well illustrates my message here concerns a book discussion group that one of the chaplains on the base initiated. As I recall, there were about a dozen of us airmen and civilians sitting in a circle at the first meeting, when the chaplain reviewed some nonfiction book and invited the rest of us to offer our comments. Then the chaplain explained that his performance was essentially a pattern he wanted us to follow when reviewing our own reading choices in future meetings. I, the eager fool, volunteered to present a review at the next meeting, a week later.

I had already been reading two books alternately: Arthur Koestler’s Reflections on Hanging, a critique of capital punishment; and some book whose title I cannot recall, a collection of historical narratives about various heinous crimes committed in England. While reading them I became aware of the dichotomy in my reactions to the books’ subjects: when reading Koestler my feelings reacted against capital punishment; when reading the other book my revulsion could be so strong in some cases that I believed no type of punishment could be harsh enough for the perpetrators: they were all hanged. That experience got me to musing over how much I was susceptible to weirdly and quickly varying attitudes, how my values could shift radically in just a short time, from the setting of one book down and the opening of another. Was my value system really that fragile and unstable? I wondered if this phenomenon was true of others, so I decided to try an experiment.

I do not recall the details of my mode of presentation, only that I alternated between summarizing various parts of each book and interpolating quotes here and there. I didn’t realize how long it was. I guess the chaplain felt the room was getting stuffy, for while I was reading he got up, went to a window and raised it. Shortly afterwards, one man, only a few years older than I was, interrupted me by asking, “Are we going to get a chance to discuss this? It sounds like a bunch of morbidity to me.” Another fellow murmured something about people who “should have gone to college”. I don’t remember how I responded or even that I did; I felt deflated and defeated; my lack of response was way too predictive of future encounters; I probably just said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The whole episode might have turned out better if I had begun the presentation with an explanation that I was conducting a psychological experiment; but, on the other hand, to have done so would probably have compromised the validity of the result.

When no succeeding review was announced, I went to the chaplain and asked him what was up. He replied that he had discontinued the book review sessions because too few people were participating.

During all my life since then I have from time to time pondered how we can act decisively in murky situations and dilemmas when our ideas and feelings react against each other. Just what is the “tipping point”, as it has come to be nominated?

Finis

For more commentary on this topic, see my Dec. 15, 2013, post “To Be Or…Catastrophe!”

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
When a person reaches the 76th year he can develop the notion that, because he has lived through — even studied — much history, he has accumulated a dense patina of knowledge in his brain; yet he also feels afflicted by the suspicion that he does not know how to apply it. I recall in my youth enduring various puzzling illnesses and mechanical problems which, after healing or correcting by learning the causes and applying the proper treatments or techniques, I have said to myself, “There now, in the future when I come across this situation again, I will know what to do!” The only problem with that assumption is that the illness or mechanical failure  seems never to repeat itself. There is always a new puzzle to ponder. Because of a few such episodes in my recent past, the idea of composing this essay flowered in my brain.

Past:

Einstein said that time and space are the same. I take that remark to mean that if I get up from this chair and walk over to my bookcase, about fifteen feet away, I will be walking into the future; and that if I turn around and walk back to my chair, I will be walking into the past, because I am going the same distance, over the same area, over the same period of time, only in reverse — just like the “rewind” device on my VCR. But I don’t feel that to be the case, for I have aged infinitesimally during both transits. (I wonder, to render this example valid, would it be necessary for me to retrace my steps backward rather than doing an about-face and proceeding forward again but in the opposite direction?)

I’m a very time-sensitive person, and the only place I feel that I am delving into the past is in the memory sections of the brain (the pre-frontal lobe [short-term] and the hippocampus [long-term]). Of course there are extant, exterior entities, such as an old photo or a “golden oldie” sound recording, even a scent, that can stir and augment memories.

A strange aspect of some memories is that they have made me imagine that the events which they relate still exist. Those particularly vivid memories, though very transient, are so palpable as to make their events’ extinction seem improbable. When I had such a memory unfold in my mind one day recently, I wondered where I would have to search to recover the event itself; but I quickly shook off that notion after realizing that every event has preceding and subsequent events, and I could not bring back that singular, desirable scene without also summoning its past and future. That enterprise would require a time machine.

Before you summon the guys in white coats, consider a few sentences from an article in last January’s Harper’s magazine. Titled “WHAT CAME BEFORE THE BIG BANG?”, the essay was written by MIT physicist and novelist (what a combination) Alan Lightman. Actually, in the sentences I will quote here, Lightman is referring not to his own cosmological theory but to one being investigated by another MIT scientist, Alan Guth, and California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll. Their hypothesis, known as the “Two-Headed time theory”, according to Lightman, proposes that the order of our universe, then much smaller than an atom, “was at a maximum at the Big Bang; disorder increased both before and after…. (T)he forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder. Thus the future points away from the Big Bang in two directions. A person living in the contracting phase of the universe sees the Big Bang in her past, just as we do. When she dies, the universe is larger than when she was born, just as it will be for us. ‘When I come to understand that the reason I can remember the past but not the future is ultimately related to conditions at the Big Bang, that was a startling epiphany,’ said Carroll.

Lightman compares the expansion and contraction phases of the universe to that children’s toy, the “Slinky”, which, as he points out, “reaches maximum compression on impact, and then bounces back to larger dimensions. Because of the unavoidable fluctuations required by quantum physics, the contracting universe would not be an exact mirror image of the expanding universe; a physicist named Alan Guth probably did not exist in the contracting phase of our universe.” Still, there is always that wiggle room left by “probably”.

Lightman describes a few other theories of the “origin” of the universe, none of which allow for the notion of time and therefore do not consider “before” and “after” and therefore are outside the province of my essay here. However, I do want to bring in one more analogy that Lightman uses to characterize the expanding/contracting phases of the universe: a movie of a glass dropped on a tile floor, shattering, then recombining and flying back up to the table top from which it fell. If I think of the glass shards as events in my life, and of the possibility that they are scattered now out there in the vastness of space/time, and that they might someday in the far-off future recombine to become those events again, then my dream, as I related above, of summoning memories is not so absurd as you readers might have judged earlier. Heh?

Present:

We are frequently advised by gurus of various varieties to “live in the moment” in order to be happy. Who am I to argue with that formula? Only it doesn’t work for me. Why?

Well, I think it’s partly a function of Fate: I don’t have any choice but to live in the moment, yet the present seldom smiles on me, definitely not for more than a few hours. The present, in fact, seems like the target on a dart board where missiles are continually bombarding. I keep looking for that day when I can proceed from arising to retiring without some, at the least, irksome or, at the most, catastrophic encounter. I can’t recall the last time I gamboled through such a day, although I feel certain there have been some, quite likely many such. They were just too long ago. (And here, I see, I can’t even write about the present without bringing in the past and the future: depending on one’s definition of “the present”, it seems impossible to separate it from those periods. Is the present this day, this experience, or really just this “moment”? )

Another problem with the “live in the moment” prescription, not just for me but for every adult, I believe, is that even in our most positive moments we have to consider future events: college, career, possibly marriage, elections, and retirement funding. A host of other, smaller concerns requiring decisions are scattered through our lives. As one old humorist expressed it, “Why does any man examine the teeth of a horse he is thinking of buying and yet forgo checking out his prospective bride’s teeth?”

Laying all that aside, just how do I confront the present? That is too big a question. I mean, in this time I cannot ignore the fact that many of the problems I have to face also stand before almost everybody else: crazy politicians rattling their sabers, oncoming weird weather disasters and famines, fanatical gun toters, out-of-control medical and housing prices, etc. I can’t limit all those problems to myself. The conundrum, then, for me is: How can I separate out what affects only me from what affects everybody else? I cannot totally and sensibly demarcate those boundaries. Yes, there are a few somewhat private health issues which I have, but even they, as types, also afflict at least some small portions of the population; how I weary of hearing a “comforting” friend utter, “Oh, that’s just part of getting old!” or “Yeah, that stuff has been going around lately!” Why cannot my current problem be mine…individual…alone?

Future:   

My, how the calendar has shrunk! It used to be the case that when someone reminded me that some event took place last year, I could imagine an expanse of time with body to it. Now “last year” seems like what we once-upon-a-time called “last month”. I’m not sure whether this change is due to aging in me or to a more encompassing phenomenon which Alvin Toffler described as the perception of “too much change in too short a period of time” in his book Future Shock back in 1970. If the latter, then it is really weird how external events can cause one’s notion of a calendar period to shrink. There is now a whole “scientific” field of people — called “futurists” — who gather data from a large array of sources to predict what the future holds. Simple crystal balls and astronomical charts are passé.

When one reaches an age as advanced as my own, he or she is confronted with the reality that their options have greatly shrunk. There is no point in our seeking another academic field or degree, although we might have fun and benefit from taking a “continuing education” course occasionally. And we might look at our overloaded bookshelves, count the books we haven’t read, and resolve for the nth time never again to enter that bookstore a few blocks away. I swear! I must have bought all those books just because they are so decorative! Oh me, oh my!

Nor are we to get married…not sensibly anyway. Oh, if we are very wealthy and are seduced by a beautiful, young “honey-pot” into being her “sugar-daddy”, we might find ourselves wandering down that church aisle or into that Las Vegas drive-thru wedding chapel. Or, if we are much less affluent, we might marry someone nearer our own age just because we each anticipate the other will at least nurse us through our final days. The latter case is a little less contaminated by folly or predatoriness but does retain some of the strategical about it: no hot romantic blood there certainly.

But there are other issues that affect not just me and my ilk but many, many other Americans. The news media daily reminds us that we have several potential, horrifying fates lying in wait for us — climate change disasters; the threat of religious and political radicalisms; dissolution of welfare programs, including Social Security; Alzheimer’s disease; and Donald Trump as president. And those are just the severest ones. Although we should not let them overwhelm us to the extent that we can prevent them from doing so, we still have to pay attention to them in order to prevent, or at least defend ourselves against, them. So, in that very deep sense we are attached to the future.

Finis

 

 

Naughty Children…Rated R.

© 2016 By Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

It’s a good thing Christmas is already done and gone; I would hate to complicate the stockings for any toddlers who might accidentally see this post and become corrupted at a very early age. But, oh heck, it’s bound to happen someday, what difference does it make if that day is today?

Recently, for some unknown reason, I began reflecting on my childhood experiences, particularly on the little ditties my playmates and I used to sing between our giggles. Whoever wrote the lyrics, I have no idea; the tunes, though, went with familiar songs from operas…although we were not acquainted with any operas at that age (5- to 8-years-old).

Here’s the first one; the tune’s source I don’t know, but it was well-known — perhaps “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (?), or the “Bacchanale” from Camille Saint-Saens’ opera Samson and Dalila (?):

“All the girls in France
wear tissue paper pants.
All the girls in Spain
go naked in the rain.”

Now, who came up with those verses? The author surely must have been an adult; it is highly unlikely that any child wrote them. I want to make it entirely clear here that the depictions of national habits are fabricated…false. And I do not believe the author of those scandalous lines was intentionally being derogatory; he (or she) was more probably just depending on the countries’ names as sources for rhyme words, just as many of our naughtier limericks include “Nantucket”.

What interests me now, though, is the question: To what extent did our singing those ditties reflect our level of developing knowledge about what is naughty? Actually, in my case it is an unanswerable conundrum. My memory is not that retrievable or specific; I do well just to recall having sung them when I was so young.

And here’s the second, sung to the “Toréador Song” chorus in Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen:

“Toréador, don’t spit on the floor.
Use a cuspidor; that’s what it’s for.”

Those lines, of course, are not “naughty” in the usual sense of the term, merely slightly gross. I can credit them for at least causing me to learn what a “cuspidor” is, for I had never seen one and did not see one until many years later, in a movie.

Finally, here is one which I suppose we can say is derogatory, although not against any nation or even any particular persons. The words are to be sung to the “Bridal Chorus” music from Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin:

“Here comes the bride,
Big, fat and wide;
Here comes the groom,
Skinny as a broom.”

Now, on what occasion would any child sing that?! Only during those times when two or more of them are together and acting silly — which happens frequently; or at least did during my early childhood. I believe you will agree with me that the verse is snide, and to that limited but still hurtful extent “naughty”. Many children, I believe, sometimes feel impelled to be cruel in what they say: What child hasn’t yelled at a parent he/she loves but who is denying them something, “I hate you!”?

Very young children are not as “innocent” as parents and politicians often proclaim them to be.

Finis

Identity

© 2016 By Bob Litton

Note to Readers: This short story was written back in the late 1960s (or perhaps the early ’70s); I was in graduate school at the time. With that background, some readers might view it as juvenilia. But I have kept it in my files all these years and took it out today and still like it.
The reason I have not sought to have it published before now is because one of my former professors deflated me by declaring, “You’ve got this kid thinking like a Harvard graduate, Bob!” Today, however, I recalled reading a 
Life magazine article decades ago about a 10- to 12-year-old boy who was attending science courses at the University of Chicago. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the devout prodigy replied, “Well, right now I want to be a priest, but when I get that old I might feel different.” How mature an insight for a boy that young!
     Another element I want to mention: From the time I started to write stories (as an adult) I realized that my efforts were not stories so much as they were essays with characters in them.
Whatever its literary worth, I hope you will gain something from reading “Identity”.
—BL

Chuck could tie his own shoes now.  He was telling himself that over and over again as he struggled with the laces.  “Hurry Chuck!” his mother called from the living room below.  At last, they were tied!  He stood, looking critically at the closet mirror.  He was wearing his red cotton shirt, just like Gene Autry’s shirt, at least as it always appeared in the comic books.  His blue jeans, too, were just like Gene Autry’s jeans.  If only the shoes were cowboy boots, but his mother had said those would have to wait until Christmas.  Chuck lowered his pants’ cuffs over the shoe-tops so that the laces were at least partly covered. When I get my boots I won’t have to bother with laces! he imagined.  His appearance was most important today because he was going to the state fair with his mother, going to the fair for the first time in his life.

He hopped down the stairs and found his mother opening and closing her umbrella to make sure it was still reliable.  She was very mistrustful of mechanical things.
“Oh Mother, we won’t need that, will we?”
“We might.  We’ll be out there all day, and the radio said a squall line is gathering in the north.”
“What’s a squall line?”
“A lot of rain all bunched up.”

The bus Chuck and his mother rode was crowded with young people in sweatshirts and crazy hats.  Teenagers, swinging their arms carelessly about and yelling to each other the length of the bus, awed the boy.  He knew they were not adults like his mother, who was a large, country-bred woman, yet they were bigger than he;  and, although he didn’t know the word, he could sense their competitiveness.  Huddling as close to his mother’s side as he could, he observed their antics.

They were unseating each other as an impromptu game.  A standee would try to eject a likely victim from his seat.  If he was successful, the seat became his own, and it was then up to the new standee to find a weaker opponent to dislodge.  Each victim held on to the seat bar with all his might, and it usually took several minutes of straining to pull him loose.  Chuck’s mother ignored these frolics, but he watched them fascinated.  And so it went until they arrived at the fairgrounds.

Balloons!  Pennants!  Reds, blues, yellows, polka dots and stripes!  A waving, weaving mob of people.  It was too great a task for Chuck to keep his attention trained on any single sight; there was too much variety.  Here, a little girl, hardly older than Chuck himself, was licking at some pink, fluffy stuff that reminded him of angel hair.  There, an old man, gray-grizzly, with a yellow apron on was blowing cacophonous, quasi-music through a silver disc and then bellowing out that the crowd should buy his bits of tin.  Now came a bunch of teenagers, six abreast, shuffling along the paper-littered street and carrying large teddy bears and tawdry little chalk figurines.  In the distance were elevated machines going round and round high in the air with screaming people in bullet-shaped cars.  Beyond those strange machines were tents flapping in the damp wind over farm implements.  In another direction were sedate buildings draped with flags, and open air stages where bands were playing.

Suddenly Chuck noticed a tent with posters hanging down its sides, posters like giant comic book covers.  On one was a woman with long, frizzled hair who was smiling at the two huge snakes encircling her body.  Such sharp teeth she had!  In another picture an otherwise human sort of man—who looked depressed to Chuck—had alligator scales all over his body.  Chuck paused, heedless of his mother, to gaze at the bizarre posters. They saddened him; but he sensed they weren’t supposed to, so he felt guilty about his sadness.  His mother came up to him and gave him a gentle nudge meaning to come along with her, but he didn’t move.  Instead, he memorized the heavy, dark lines and the ferocious coloring of the posters.

A man behind a wicker-wire cage with a large roll of tickets was hawking for one show:  “Step on in, folks, and satisfy your curiosity.  If you hurry you can still catch the famous Crisp family of acrobats.  Most talented folks you’ll ever hope to see.  Only one dime, ladies and gentlemen, only one dime.  Thank ya, lady…thank ya, buddy.”

Chuck’s mother looked down at her son with a teasingly inquisitive smile, “Would you like to go in?”

Chuck hesitated, glancing at the man high above him and then at the lane of sawdust leading through the tent flaps.  He nodded affirmatively without looking at his mother.  He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to go in there, but he thought his saying “no” would somehow be detected as a sign of fear, and Gene Autry wouldn’t respect a “fraidy-cat”.
“Two, please,” said his mother to the hawker, opening her coin purse and delving for the dimes.
“Thank ya, lady.”

Inside the tent was a fat, hemp rope stretched on short poles cordoning off a sawdust arena.  Since there were no seats, the crowd gathered close to the rope, jostling each other, vying for clearer views.  Chuck’s mother was tall and sturdy enough and not too feminine to push men around.  Her neighbors all agreed she had pushed her husband right into his grave.  Now she elbowed her way up to the roped boundary and pulled Chuck up in front of her.  The boy grabbed the rope to maintain his equilibrium within the slightly swaying crush of the crowd.

The scene before Chuck made him draw his shoulders in, and his hands moistened as they more tightly gripped the itchy twists of the rope.  There were ten small people, about Chuck’s height but with adult-size heads and mature faces, and they were performing acrobatic stunts.  The stubbiness of their limbs made the lithe agility of their movements seem all the more incredible than if done by ordinary humans.  Chuck had thought such beings existed only in the tunnels and towers of fairy-tale books where they hammered on anvils or spun gold out of straw.  Yet here they were in the flesh bouncing through somersaults.  Finally they all came together and proceeded to form a human pyramid by standing on one another’s shoulders: the seven males formed the base and middle, and the three females towered on up until the last could almost touch the peak of the tent.  When they had successfully completed this stunt, the crowd clapped enthusiastically for them.

Only Chuck remained silent and still.  He couldn’t have told why, if anyone had been concerned to ask, but he felt dread welling up within him.  He suddenly wanted to leave this tent with its sawdust and ropes and weird denizens.  But his mother’s broad body was flush against his back, and there was a thick mass of enchanted spectators around the roped perimeter.

The family of dwarfs broke up the pyramid and were preparing to leave so that the next act could enter, when one of the male dwarfs happened to notice Chuck and, laughing in an increasingly extroverted manner, exclaimed, “Brothers!  Sisters!  See, he’s like one of us.  He’s our brother!”  Then the humorous dwarf came up to Chuck and tried to tug him into the arena.

Chuck suddenly realized why he had wanted to escape earlier, why he was repelled by the very sight of these people.  Yes, he was like them, for they were all wearing red shirts and blue pants.  Two more of the dwarfs recognized the significance of their brother’s allusion and then they, too, pulled gently at Chuck’s sleeves and chimed in with the sing-song cajolery:  “Come, little brother, and join our fun!  Stand on your head or turn a somersault!  We’ll show you how.”  But Chuck clung with all his might to the rope and would not be dislodged.  The spectators began to titter, cheer, laugh.  In a short time the tent became an echo chamber of hilarity.  Even Chuck’s mother smiled and tried to encourage her son to go into the ring and play with the dwarfs.
“Go on, Chuck.  They won’t hurt you.  They just want you to play with them.  They’ll show you how to do a somersault.”

But Chuck held to the rope, speechless, practically mindless with the agony of his humiliation, until finally he began to cry out—to squall, “No,! No! Never!  I don’t want to be like them.  Never!  Let me go home!!”  The ducts of his eyes opened and a downpour flooded out.

The mob of people, all bunched up, melded by curiosity into a single, monstrous being, gradually ceased to laugh.  Its face, just recently so wrinkled with laughter, now took on the bathetic expression of an extravagant tragedian.  A multitude of eyes suddenly became blandly solicitous for this odd little boy who apparently didn’t know how to play but would rather cling to the rope as though he were a hundred feet off the ground.

The three dwarfs let go of Chuck’s arms.  They were embarrassed that their good-natured camaraderie should bring tears to a child’s eyes.  Chuck’s mother looked at them apologetically and was just about to verbalize her feelings when one of them interrupted her:  “It’s all right, lady.  We didn’t mean to frighten him.  Poor kid’s scared to death.  Better take him home.”

As he left the tent Chuck suddenly stopped crying.  He felt the surprising calm that follows a total cry.  But the tears remained on his cheeks, and the cooling twilight air seemed to crystallize them there.  With arm crooked, Chuck wiped the freezing tear-drops on to the red cotton of a shirt sleeve.  He wondered at the strange calm within him and at some new tempest welling but still submerged.  Something had been destroyed; something else was germinating.  Peripherally, he was aware that his mother was trying in her own way to console him.
“My goodness, Chucky!  What’s wrong?  They didn’t mean you any harm.  Are you all right now?  My goodness!  I’ve never been so embarrassed.  You did want to see them, didn’t you?  Yes, you know you did.  Weren’t they wonderful acrobats?  We’ll be home soon.  Do you want some cotton candy?  No?  Oh well….”

Chuck twinged at his mother’s obtuseness.  All she had seen was that he hadn’t wanted to go into the ring and that he had embarrassed her.  She didn’t recognize the meaning of his refusal to identify with the dwarfs─his rejection of them as “brothers”.  In that moment some of her authority as interpreter of the external world dissipated.

For the rest of the week Chuck was quiet and reserved.  He played unwillingly with other children and brooded much.  Even apparel became a matter of indifference to him; he wore whatever his mother laid out, neither exhibiting any preference for the red shirt nor avoiding it.  When Christmas arrived at the end of the week he accepted the boots under the tree as indifferently, almost as though he had forgotten about them.

Chuck didn’t forget the dwarfs though.  As the sense of injustice against his own self waned he gradually came to accuse himself of acting wrongfully against the dwarfs.  Over and over he relived the scene in his mind, trying to imagine a happier outcome.  In one daydream he was wearing something other than red and blue, and the dwarfs were oblivious of his presence.  In another he dignifiedly but kindly refused to participate and made them feel good by the graciousness of his refusal.  His imaginings increased in their romanticism: In the last he was jumping over the rope and tumbling with the dwarfs enthusiastically, brilliantly, so that they begged him to join their troupe.  The grotesque contrast between this day-dream and actual fact brought Chuck up short in his imaginings.

It snowed all New Year’s Eve, and nearly a foot of snow had accumulated by the time the sky cleared that night.  Chuck put on his coat and boots and went out to stand on the back porch.  A full moon glimmered luminously on the snow.  Over one of the pecan tree’s crusted limbs was scurrying a shadowy squirrel.  Ah, thought Chuck, how great it must be to be simply a squirrel looking for a pecan—a squirrel in all its squirrelness hunting pecans, unconscious, not wishing to be anything else!  Why were little boys afflicted with the urge to pretend to be something they are not?  Why must they torment themselves pretending they are cowboys—or dwarfs?  Ah, to be a squirrel!

And then he laughed.  In helpless, boyish giggles did he laugh.

Finis

“Calf-rope”…Or The Lost Art of Losing

Calf-rope -- Boys fighting

YOUTHFUL BOUTS to determine superior strength, speed and skills have been a central element in Western–especially American–culture since the beginning of that culture. Adults usually try to stop a fight when they see one, but probably more often the battle doesn’t end until one of the boys yelps “uncle” or “calf-rope”. Just as often, perhaps, the boys are not angry when they are tussling (especially while wrestling); they are just testing their physical and psychical strengths with friends. These two, however, look pretty serious.

PHOTO CREDIT: Microsoft Office Images/Illustrations
TEXT: © 1979, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: This is another of those “worthy of re-printing” columns I pulled out of my little stash of old gems. It dates from November 1979, just a few weeks after I became editor  of the Monahans News. I think it is pretty clear and still timely as it stands, so I won’t take up space and time with a longer explanatory preface, except to inform our non-cowboy readers that the literal meaning of “calf-rope” — alternatively called a “piggin string” — is a piece of rope six-to-seven feet long used to bind three of a calf’s legs after he has been roped for branding, medicating, tagging, castrating, or just as part of a rodeo contest. Enjoy!!!

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

When I was a pre-teen there was a traditional mode of admitting defeat in a fight between boys: “uncle”.  That meant that you saw you were in a position where you couldn’t move and you recognized that the fellow who had you down had nothing left to do except pulverize your face or sit on top of you until one or the other decided eternity was too long.

What you were doing when you said “uncle” was to admit that you were defeated irrevocably and that, if your opponent would just let you up, you guaranteed him you would not attempt retaliation. It was what used to be known as a “gentlemen’s agreement” back when the world still contained gentlemen, even among small boys.

I always wondered what “uncle” denoted in such a context, but I did not imagine there was any immediate way of finding out. It must be just another of those nonsense syllables which become coined to be expressive in a peculiar situation, I supposed.

One day in Dallas, just before coming down here, I was discussing this old word with a friend of mine who is associate chaplain at SMU. “We always used ‘calf-rope’ out in Crowell,” my friend said. (Crowell is a farming community in the Texas Panhandle.)

“That makes a lot more sense to me than ‘uncle’”, I replied.

At that juncture one of my friend’s three sons, a high school senior, came into the room; and we asked him what the current term was for surrender. “There isn’t one,” he said. “I think they don’t want you to give up.They want to kill you.”

The young man’s comment slightly shocked me at first, but then I recollected that the older we get the less likely we are to forget even the smallest slights. Pre-pubescent boys—of my generation at least—can (or could) fight lustily one day and join each other in play the next day. Men, however, have to be very thoughtful of how much they are willing to risk when they get physical with others. I have read news accounts, for instance, of bar-bouncers ejecting misbehaving fellows from their establishments only to see the sore losers return armed—with a shotgun in one instance, with a pistol in another—and blow the bouncers away.

I mused over that a while and then forgot the subject for the time being.  However, I was reminded of it while staying with some friends in Clarendon.  We were talking about a local man who had originally opposed the construction of Clarendon College.  “He fought it with everything he had, even hired lawyers,” one of my friends told me. “But, after he lost the fight and the college was built, he turned right around and supported it just as fervently as he had opposed it. He’ll cuss them out if they don’t do things the way he thinks they ought to be done, but he also contributes to their scholarship fund.”

Now, I thought, that’s a good loser. That man knows the true meaning of “calf-rope”.

Again, just recently, I was reading an article about special interest groups who are so determined to win they have forgotten all about compromise and the political process.  If they lose on an issue fight one year they form strange alliances with groups whose only common concern with their own is the political jugular vein of the senator or representative who did not vote the way they wanted him to.

Morris Udall and John Glenn are just two of several national politicians who have recently been buffeted, though finally unsuccessfully, by special interest groups. Other politicians are terrified of such coalitions, and this terror is bound to have a diluting impact on the quality of congressional decision-making.

President Carter and some others have grown to favor the idea of single six-year terms, not solely out of fear of special interests either. Another element in their reasoning is that political offices should not become careers.

I’ll go along with that. I would like to see politicians performing their tasks with the only consideration in the back of their minds the welfare of the nation, not the winning of their next term. Let them learn to say “calf-rope” with a grin and mean it.

— The Monahans News, November 15, 1979

An interesting postscript for this topic is the “Tarzan” comic strip of January 28, this year, in which Tarzan defeats an ape and forces him to utter the ape-language word for surrender: “kagoda”. I am placing the URL for that day’s strip here, but it likely won’t lead to the strip three months from now because, for whatever reason, specific URL’s are discontinued after a while:   http://www.gocomics.com/tarzan/2015/01/28.
— BL

Finis

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.
BL

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