ON WRITING

Pie in the sky, Guccis in the window

As published in the The Providence Sunday Journal, April 17, 2022.

One week into my first job as a copywriter, I heard my mother’s skepticism as we stood by the cash register in her store on Federal Hill.

“It’s pie in the sky,” she said, referring to the advertising profession. “Do you really want to do that?”

It was too soon to tell. But getting paid to dream up headlines and write copy all day was a step up from busing tables at the Turk’s Head Club downtown, which had been my previous gig.

Still, I understood Mom’s wariness about Madison Avenue. Atwells Avenue was more to her liking.

Her father, Vincent, owned the iconic baby clothes store standing at the corner of Atwells and Acorn Street. And just two blocks east, past the sparkling fountain recently constructed in DePasquale Plaza, she had opened her own store – a teen and junior fashion boutique for women.

There was nothing “pie in the sky” about how my grandfather and mother made money. They purchased clothing and accessories from wholesalers and marked the items up “keystone” or double their cost. They had an eye for fashion, a flair for merchandising, and a gift for sales persuasion. Their stores thrived.

In the early 1980s, one accessory in my mother’s store surpassed all others in popularity. Even I recognized the double-G logo and signature red-and-green band of the famed Gucci brand. So what if the handbags were knockoffs?

Decades later, I found the movie “House of Gucci,” starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, wildly entertaining. Not surprisingly, one scene in particular made me lean forward: Gaga’s character, Patrizia Reggiani, takes issue with the counterfeit Gucci bags that are being sold in Manhattan, saying they are “junk.” But Driver, portraying her husband, the doomed Gucci heir, waves her off. “As far as fakes go, they’re pretty good,” he says with a smile. “I’d buy them.”

That’s what hundreds of shoppers did at my mother’s store. So, to help meet the ongoing demand, I took personal days from my ad-agency job two or three times a year to accompany Mom on buying trips to New York City.

We’d hustle into cavernous (and pre-rehab) Union Station, sending resident pigeons to the rafters before catching an early Amtrak train to the Big Apple. From Penn Station, we’d hike uptown to the garment district where my mother would barter for the best prices on blouses, skirts, denim jackets, and, yes, Gucci knockoffs.

We’d grab lunch at a sidewalk hot dog stand and, if necessary, buy cheap umbrellas from one of the street vendors who seemed to magically appear with the first drops of rain.

And when the day’s buying was done, we’d duck into a bar for cocktails and appetizers, then doze on the train ride back to Providence. Once home, we’d recount our adventures over dinner at Camille’s.

The goods arrived in Providence several days later, and we prepared them for sale. With the Gucci knockoffs, that meant stuffing the bags with crumpled newspaper, looping price tags around their handles, and positioning them strategically in the showcase window.

One day, my mother surprised me: “I’m thinking of running a small ad in the Journal’s Style section,” she said.

The one-column-by-three-inch ad an art director colleague and I created featured a pen-and-ink handbag illustration with a simple headline promise: “Lookalikes for less!”

It wasn’t pie in the sky as much as truth in advertising, and the fake Guccis flew out the door.

My ‘lonely’ roundabout journey to 100 columns

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 20, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

I stared at the list of names thumbtacked to the English department bulletin board and felt my stomach churn. My name wasn’t on it. Intermediate Fiction Writing would be convening that spring semester without me.

The professor’s scant notations in the margins of the typed writing sample I’d submitted hardly made it to page two. Should I knock on his door to find out why? Possibly ask for advice?

No way. I was afraid he’d say what I was already hearing in my head. I walked back to my dorm room and cracked open a beer. And that was the end of my creative writing days at Brown University.

But a different kind of writing beckoned.

Senior year, I landed an internship as a copywriter at an ad agency. Which turned into a job. Which turned into a career.

After I was hired, my sister-in-law gave me a framed cartoon from the New Yorker that sits on a shelf by my desk to this day. A woman in a bar is looking skeptically at a hipster guy. “Copywriting is too ‘writing,’” he insists.

It is and it isn’t.

It is, because copywriters, like all writers, wrestle with words to express ideas, make meaning, and connect with readers.

And it isn’t, because copywriters sign their work with their client’s name. It’s ghostwriting, and I’m fine with that. I’ve discovered I like the cloak of anonymity that writing for clients affords me.

For four decades, I’ve ghosted for banks and global corporations and even – wait for it – a casket wholesaler. Every day I exercise my writing muscles in service of my clients, like a basketball player practicing free throws in service of his or her team. A Macintosh computer is my gym.

Ten years ago, my friend Elizabeth asked if I’d like to contribute a piece to her local online news platform. I could write whatever I wanted, she said. I heard myself say “No, thanks” reflexively, perhaps summoning the ghost of my writing-class rejection at Brown.

And then my next-door neighbor died. I wrote a remembrance, and Elizabeth published it – a eulogy that recalled Dick’s annual Christmas morning visits with our family: “With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.” 

My work in the Macintosh gym paid off; I found the words to express my heartfelt feelings for my friend.

A dozen or so pieces followed. One recounted the kindness of my second-grade teacher; another described a fallen backyard fence and my children leaving home.

The more columns I wrote, the more comfortable I got with my byline. It was Dick’s last gift to me.

A lovely family moved into Dick’s old house. They may have been sent by angels because Harold, the dad, was a former copy editor at the New Yorker. After helping me fine-tune several of my pieces, he suggested I send one to Ed Achorn, then the Editorial Pages Editor of the Providence Journal.

Four months later I did – a Christmas Eve story about my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill. It was my first column in the Journal. This one is my 100th

Writing is a solitary act.

The irony is, I write to not be alone. And when I hear from people, sharing their stories after reading mine, it’s a wondrous communion. 

To Elizabeth and Harold and Ed, for their encouragement and support, and to you, for reading, I offer what Alice Walker calls the best prayer anyone could say: “Thank you.”

Thoughts on aging from runners, writers, and priests

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 19, 2021.

I walk my dog, Rhody, up Peirce Street on a quiet Sunday morning as the sun floats above the horizon like an orange crystal ball. We round the corner at the granite steeple of St. Luke’s Church and are greeted by the sound of a runner’s slow, steady gait. A balding, bespectacled man approaches, wearing a sweat-darkened gray t-shirt and Nikes that seem two sizes too big. As he clomps closer, I catch his eye to say hello, but his words beat mine:

“Don’t get old!” he huffs as he lumbers past. 

The man’s admonition amuses me. Do I have any choice? Rhody pulls me onward, unleashing a dull, familiar ache in my shoulder.

In “As You Like It,” Shakespeare delineates the seven ages of man, from “mewling” infant in a nurse’s arms to the “second childishness” of old age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Sheesh.

Other writers opine on aging more positively. There are these heartening words from Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom.”

William Butler Yeats, also less despairing than Shakespeare, is nonetheless wistful: “How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!” I remember my first kiss: fifth grade, 50 years ago, a furtive moment in a garage on Whitford Avenue in Providence, bubblegum sweet. My heart was racing.

Rhody and I continue up Church Street, passing the walled graveyard that sits behind St. Luke’s and then the playground beyond the church parking lot where young children are laughing.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw observes that “youth is wasted on the young.” The Who’s Pete Townshend shoots back: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Another Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, declares “With age comes wisdom,” adding, in typical pithy fashion, “But sometimes age comes alone.”

Cheryl Strayed is grateful: “You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.”

My black rescue dog is three years old. That’s 28 in human years, according to the American Kennel Club. The organization has fine-tuned its age calculation methodology from the “one dog year equals seven human years” dictum that I grew up with. It now tallies more years for a canine’s early life and fewer as a dog ages. According to the latest guidance, if we’re both lucky, Rhody and I will be the same age sometime around 2029.

My furry sidekick looks like she’s smiling as she takes in the morning air, untroubled by times past or times to come. Rhody lives in the present.

In “I Remember Nothing,” Nora Ephron tends toward the fatalistic: “Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.”

Every Ash Wednesday, at the St. Luke’s altar rail, the faithful kneel with foreheads raised as a priest intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Forty-six days later, Easter offers the hope of a different ending.

I wrestle with the Resurrection story even as I am guided by the enduring teachings of the Old and New Testaments. 

I do, however, find comfort in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, who invokes the “durable pigments” of painters and “prophetic sonnets” of writers in describing an antidote to human transience: “the refuge of art.”

Immortality may be elusive, but 405 years after his death, Shakespeare lives. 

My letters to Ireland come home

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 15, 2020.

The letters reveal their treasures in different ways, reflecting the evolution of personal correspondence over the last 40 years. Some are on yellow foolscap, handwritten in blue ink. Some are typed, single-space, on translucent onionskin. And some are on white printer paper in a crisp Arial font. But they all have one thing in common: The letters were written by me.

Two years ago, I came into possession of them thanks to my dear friend Grainne, whose family I lived with as a student in Dublin, Ireland in 1980. After I returned home to Rhode Island, she and I began a correspondence that has spanned nearly four decades. Our back-and-forth is mostly digital now, which makes the physical letters I sent to Grainne and her husband, Sean, more precious. I’m grateful she returned them to me.

Grainne’s understanding of what the letters represent came from personal experience. She had recently found missives that she penned to her mother while attending school in Italy as a 16-year-old. “It can be quite an emotional experience,” she said of reading one’s long-ago reflections, “like they are from someone we don’t recognize – the person we were then, young and innocent.”

How true. I unfold one of the typewritten letters, from 1981, and am struck by the brash voice of a 21-year-old wannabe writer: “If I pursue a Hemingway-like career in Ireland, as you suggested, your house will be my first stop.” In another, sent a year and a half later, I report with relief that I had landed a job: “I was hired by an advertising firm as a copywriter. Not a novelist yet, but still a writer of sorts.”

The early letters serve up multiple references to Bruce Springsteen, whose latest album, “The River,” I had obtained during my Dublin stay. I’m reminded that I played the LP, frequently late at night, in Grainne and Sean’s living room, which was right below their bedroom – perhaps a bit too often and too loud. Having left “The River” behind, I suggested that Grainne give the album to her younger brother David or toss it in the fire, which she might find more satisfying.

A handwritten letter from 1986 brings news of romance: “Cupid’s arrow has pierced my heart and now I spend lots of time with Deb.” A laser-printed note from nine years later continues the story: “Well, now there are five of us – Deb, me, Peter, Evan, and … Juliana!”

A Christmas card from 1993, bearing news of my father’s death, makes my eyes sting: “He was only 59. I miss his wit, his Saturday afternoon musings on literature, his calls during basketball games.”

According to a study by the United States Postal Service, letters sent between households plummeted 61% from 2001 through 2016. The report concluded that “correspondence mail is fading as a channel of personal communication,” noting that emerging electronic alternatives provide an “almost perfect substitute.”

Almost perfect, to be sure. These days, email and Facebook Messenger allow Grainne and me to continue our correspondence with speed and ease. But I’m glad such platforms weren’t around 30 or 40 years ago; my letters to Ireland might or might not have survived in the cloud, but it’s unlikely they’d be in my hands now.

Of the 50 or so students that attended the School of Irish Studies during the fall of 1980, I was the one randomly assigned to board with Grainne and Sean’s family. Such luck was not lost on me. Here’s how I closed my first letter back to my kind and loving hosts: “How fortunate I was to have lived with you; how happy I was in your house!”

Today, the letters sit on my desk. The envelopes are like wrapping paper, and the pages within are gifts, filled with revelations.

Thank you, Grainne, for returning parts of my story to me.

 

 

Living with life’s ups and downs

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 2019.

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the worn volume of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me after his father died.

“It was in Dad’s bookcase,” he said, handing me the slender paperback. “I want you to have it.”

My friend’s gesture didn’t surprise me; he was bighearted and knew I was a word guy. But the genre of the book caught me off guard. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to guides, not poetry.

Like many students, I first encountered Frost in high school English when I was assigned to read “Birches” freshman year. To my ear, the words were no match for Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Later, as an English major in college, I was consumed by the classical allusions of Eliot and Yeats, and the riddles of Wallace Stevens. I smugly concluded that Frost’s work was inferior because, to my mind, it was less challenging. Jim’s gift gave me my comeuppance.

I began to read “Birches” the way I believe every poet wants his or her verse to be read: repeatedly. During dozens of journeys through the poem’s 59 lines, Frost’s wisdom emerged.

The speaker in the poem recalls climbing his father’s birch trees as a boy. Holding onto the top-most section of the snow-white trunks, he would fling himself outward feet first to bend the trees and rid them of their stiffness: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The speaker is weary of considerations: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Who can’t relate to his desire for a reprieve from life’s difficulties?

As a high-school freshman, my appreciation of Frost’s insight into the human condition was slight. Weariness wasn’t part of my 14-year-old world; my biggest concern was who my basketball team was playing next. I may have read Frost’s words, but I didn’t feel them.

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. Thanks to his parents’ diligence, their house was the tidiest on the block: shingles and shutters freshly painted, American flag flying from the front porch. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. It gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited Jim’s house, his mother was quick to ply me with brownies or a meatball sandwich. His dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d politely look up and say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to suss out why Jim’s father was so reticent. As a Marine during World War II, he was part of a battallion that stormed Iwo Jima. At the end of his life, he told Jim what he had experienced on that island beach – things that were, until then, unspeakable.

In “Birches,” the speaker seeks a tree’s upper branches when “life is too much like a pathless wood.” His escape, however, is temporary; the birch eventually bends under his weight and sets him on the ground again. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I’m thankful for my friend’s gift – for the second chance it provided to discover a poet’s wisdom and the more complete picture it gave me of Jim’s father. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback really was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reason, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I’m pretty sure Jim’s dad knew long before I did.

 

Getting in the last word

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, January 20, 2019. Above: Cemetery headstone at St. Luke’s Church, East Greenwich, R.I.

Leave them laughing when you go.

That seems to be the idea behind some epitaphs, those phrases or statements inscribed on cemetery headstones.

George Carlin said he wanted his to be “He was here just a minute ago.” Groucho Marx proposed “Excuse me, I can’t stand up.”

Neither epitaph was ever actually carved in stone. Carlin was cremated, his ashes scattered; the only embellishment on Groucho’s grave marker is the Star of David.

But mixing mourning with mirth at gravesites is more common than you might think. If a quick Google search is to be trusted, there’s this gem from a couple laid to rest in the Washington, D.C. area: “We finally found a place to park in Georgetown!” And at a New Mexico cemetery, a headstone plays off the deceased’s last name: “Here lies John Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.”

British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan’s epitaph, translated from Gaelic, feigns indignation: “I told you I was ill.” Billy Wilder’s hits home with scribes: “I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.”

Some inscriptions strike us with their poignance. Visitors to Martin Luther King Jr.’s tombstone are familiar with the words it bears, echoing his most famous address: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.” At Robert F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, a low granite wall presents a quote from the impromptu speech that Kennedy gave hours after King’s assassination: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need … is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”

Some epitaphs are sweet. George H.W. Bush’s simple gravestone is inscribed with his Navy number and words honoring his wife: “He loved Barbara very much.” Mary Tyler Moore’s reads “Her spirit a beacon, Her smile eternal, She made us better.” A statue of a resting angel at the actress’s grave bears the title of the theme song that opened her popular television show in the 1970s: “Love Is All Around.”

For writers and poets, a grave marker represents the last blank page. Emily Dickinson’s two-word epitaph is distinguished, like her verse, by its economy of expression: “Called back.” Dorothy Parker’s is almost as concise, if less otherworldly: “Excuse my dust.”

Oscar Wilde’s last words are often erroneously cited as “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” (Wilde quipped about the decor in the room where he lay several weeks before he died, but his final spoken words reportedly were a mumbled Catholic prayer.) The Irish writer’s actual gravestone epitaph is taken from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which recalls his imprisonment for homosexuality in the 1890s. It reads, in part: “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.”

Shakespeare issues a warning to any who might meddle with his final resting place: “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

For pop stars, referencing a lyric from a hit song is a common epitaphic practice. Frank Sinatra assures us “The best is yet to come.” Whitney Houston says “I will always love you.” Dee Dee Ramone offers “OK … I gotta go now.”

Not surprisingly, the epitaphs of entertainers are, well, entertaining. Jackie Gleason’s mausoleum reprises the catchphrase from the end of his variety show monologues: “And away we go!” Talk show host Merv Griffin’s headstone reads “I will not be right back after this message.” And I have nothing but respect for comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s chiseled one-liner: “There goes the neighborhood.”

But perhaps my favorite headstone valediction, fitting for the close of this column, belongs to Mel Blanc. The voice of hundreds of “Loony Tunes” cartoon characters, Blanc chose a signature line from Porky Pig to commend his spirit to perpetuity: “That’s all, folks!”

Christmas lessons from a wise man

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 16, 2018. Above, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” [AP, File/1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.]

I knew teaching Sunday school the week before Christmas was going to be a challenge.  With Santa’s arrival looming, it was unlikely the second graders in my class at St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich would stay still. So I threw out the lesson book and cued up “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the video player. I didn’t think my diversion from the syllabus was sacrilege; after all, at the heart of the animated classic is a recitation of the Nativity story.

But that memorable scene almost didn’t make it to the screen.

Based on the acclaimed “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” offered charming social commentary and a hip jazz soundtrack when it first aired in 1965. The made-for-TV special opens with the forever-beleaguered title character out of sorts again, this time due to the commercialism that pervades the Yuletide season. Even directing a neighborhood Christmas play can’t shake Charlie Brown from his doldrums.

Finally, exasperated during a rehearsal, he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” At which point, his friend Linus walks to center stage and, alone in a spotlight, recites the story of Jesus’s birth from the Gospel of Luke: “… For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord …”

The show’s producer, Lee Mendelson, and director, Bill Melendez, both advised against including the New Testament reading. Melendez told Schulz, “We can’t do this; it’s too religious.” But the “Peanuts” creator, a practicing Christian, was adamant. “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?” he said. The scene was retained, and it is impossible to imagine the story without it.

It wouldn’t be the last time Schulz’s work courted controversy. Three years later, amid exploding racial tensions in cities across the United States, the cartoonist added Franklin, an African-American character, to the “Peanuts” gang. It was the first time a minority character appeared in a mainstream comic strip. When editors complained about certain strips featuring Franklin, Larry Rutman, the president of the company that syndicated “Peanuts,” requested changes. Years later, Schulz recounted his response: “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?” The strips ran, unmodified.

Beyond Linus’s biblical reading, there were other concerns with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Mendelson worried that the pacing was too slow and bemoaned the absence of a laugh track, which Schulz had vetoed. Melendez was embarrassed by the simple animation. Network executives said the music and voices were wrong and, in true Charlie Brown fashion, anticipated absolute failure.

But Schulz and the American public proved them wrong. More than 15 million households tuned in, which was nearly half of all people watching TV that Sunday evening. The special elicited glowing reviews, including Lawrence Laurent’s quip in The Washington Post that “Good old Charlie Brown, a natural born loser … finally turned up a winner.”

Years later, the response from my second-grade church school class was equally triumphant. In subsequent Advent seasons, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became an annual event for all of the Sunday school classes at St. Luke’s, as well as for some adult “kids.” Everyone would be still when, in the final scene, Linus relinquishes his ever-present blue security blanket to wrap the trunk of Charlie Brown’s sparse, needle-shedding Christmas tree. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” he says. “Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or anything else, Linus’s words in that final scene speak to a yearning that is fundamental to us all.

As the credits for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” rolled, the kids at St. Luke’s always clapped. I’d like to think that Charles Schulz, once a Sunday school teacher himself, would have been pleased.

 

Funny words are par for the course

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 20, 2018.

I was watching golf on television when my daughter, age 8 or 9 at the time, asked me what “par” meant.

I understood her bafflement. As a family, we had only played at courses with windmills and waterfalls; shooting par wasn’t our concern at Mulligan’s Island or Adventureland.

So, on this day, I told Julie the term denotes the number of strokes a good golfer is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. And, being a word nerd, I wondered where par came from. A quick search at the then-new etymonline.com revealed that it’s Latin for “equal,” which makes sense. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score.

Par isn’t the only peculiar term you’ll hear on PGA broadcasts. In the early 20th century, “bird” was slang for anything excellent. Hence, holing your ball at one stroke below par became known as a birdie. Keeping with the avian theme, an eagle means you beat par by two strokes, and shooting three under par on a hole is known as an albatross. The rare seabird is an apt symbol for a rare score.

Tennis serves up its share of quirky words. “Love” is the one that stands out, but it has nothing to do with romance. Rather, it means zero, as in “Rafael Nadal is up 40-love.” A popular, but unproven, etymological theory is that love is an Anglicization of the French word “l’oeuf,” which means egg, owing to an egg’s resemblance to a zero.

Baseball is in a league of its own when it comes to lingo. The uncovered seats out beyond the outfield are called bleachers because, in the late 1800s, these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun. Spectators there hope to catch a ball when a batter “goes yard” and hits a home run.

If a left-hander is on the mound, we might refer to him as a “southpaw.” I like the etymological explanation that says the word was coined because baseball diamonds typically oriented home plate to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references to boxing, where the ring’s orientation has no relation to the sun (and a pugilist’s haymaker may leave his foe seeing stars).

Former Red Sox southpaw Bill Lee sometimes threw an Eephus pitch, which is a low-speed, high-arching junk toss designed to catch hitters off guard. The irreverent hurler’s version of the pitch, dubbed a “Leephus,” didn’t fool Tony Perez in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. The Cincinnati slugger smashed a dinger over the Green Monster, and the Reds went on to win the game and the championship. For years afterward, Lee quipped that the ball “is still rising.”

When benches clear for a baseball brawl, it may be called a “donnybrook,” a word that derives from a so-named suburb of Dublin, Ireland. In the 19th century, an annual fair in the town was known for such rowdiness; it was said that those gathered would sooner fight than eat. Bill Lee found himself in the middle of a donnybrook with the Yankees in 1976 and paid the price: torn ligaments in his pitching arm.

Umpires had tried, futilely, to intercede in the Sox-Yankees rhubarb (a synonym of donnybrook, with “barbarism” in its linguistic DNA). The word “umpire” is related to the Old French “nompere,” which means without peer or equal. The men in blue are certainly not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

But try telling that to the fans (likely short for “fanatics”) in the bleachers. When they disagree with an umpire, they generally have another word for him: “bum” or “idiot,” if not something a lot more colorful.

On a sunny day at Fenway, that’s just par for the course.

 

Lessons from a mutt

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 18, 2018. Photo by Juliana Walsh.

The description on the card attached to the metal crate was not definitive: “Lab mix.” But there was no question about the rescue puppy inside. When I saw her sleek, black coat, floppy ears, and dark, take-me-home eyes, any last resistance I had to my daughter’s campaign to get a new dog melted away.

While Labrador retriever cross breeds are popular these days, our puppy’s lineage is likely more complicated, verging toward mutt. She’s not a labradoodle (Labrador crossed with poodle) or huskador (husky crossed with Labrador); no clever portmanteau will neatly summarize her ancestry. For all we know, she’s a labraterrichow (Labrador mixed with terrier and chow) or some such.

Portmanteaus, which blend parts of two or more words to create a new one, shine in their service of hybrid dogs. We have puggles (pug crossed with beagle) and cockapoos (cocker spaniel crossed with poodle); schnoodles (schnauzer crossed with poodle) and pomskies (Pomeranian crossed with husky).

“Portmanteau” derives from the French word for a large traveling case that opens into two equal compartments. It was coined as a linguistic term by Lewis Carroll to describe the mashed-up words he created in “Through The Looking Glass,” which was published in 1871. In Carroll’s masterwork, “slithy” combines “slimy” and “lithe”; “galumph” merges “gallop” and “triumph”; “chortle” is the marriage of “chuckle” and “snort.” “You see it’s like a portmanteau,” Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice. “There are two meanings packed up into one word.”

If Carroll is the father of portmanteaus, James Joyce is their high apostle. His modernist novels give us “saddenly” (sad plus suddenly), “shim” (she plus him), and “individuone” (individual combined with one).

Portmanteaus allow us to describe the world with economy and wit. And when they are good, they have staying power. Note how “brunch” (the hybrid of breakfast and lunch), “guesstimate” (part guess and part estimate), “blog” (short for web log), “Chunnel” (the channel-crossing tunnel that runs between England and France), and “pixel” (combining picture and element) are now part of our everyday vernacular. Their portmanteau-ness has all but vanished.

Urban Dictionary (urbandictionary.com) is a crowdsourced font of portmanteau inventiveness and amusement. Here’s a recent sampling:

“Cellfish”: When someone continues talking on a cell phone even though it is rude or inconsiderate of others.

“Textpectation”: The anticipation one feels when waiting for a response to a text message.

“Nonversation”: Pointless small talk.

“Youniverse”: The worldview of a person who is exceedingly self-referential in conversation.

“Friyay!”: The last and most welcome day of the workweek.

“Carcolepsy”: A condition in which a passenger falls asleep as soon as a car starts moving.

“Epiphanot”: An idea that seems like an amazing insight to the conceiver but is in fact ordinary and mundane. (On more than one occasion, ideas for this column have qualified as “epiphanots.”)

Here in Rhode Island, the school district Chariho is a portmanteau combining the first letters of the three towns it serves: Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkington. (I wonder if anyone suggested “Horicha” back when the district was established in 1958.) At my house, “vork” is what I often serve for dinner on Sundays – cutlets that look like veal but are actually made from pounded pork medallions. When I had the notion to rewire our dining room chandelier hours before our guests arrived for Thanksgiving one year, my wife, Deb, called it a “guydea.”

Our family can thank Dan Hurley and his URI men’s basketball team for helping us figure out our new pup’s name, if not her pedigree. After several monikers failed to gain consensus, “Rhody” jumped out at me while watching the Rams play on TV. Slam dunk!

As for Rhody’s ancestry, we’ll leave that to a DNA test. In the meantime, when people ask what kind of dog she is, we’ll just have to respond with a sort-of portmanteau: “Labradunno.”

 

What I wanted to be when I grew up

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

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