Monday, October 30, 2006

hallows and saints

Halloween as we know it is a rather recent American invention. This is well-documented, but some of the facts are still surprising. Number of candy-poisonings from 1958 to 1998? Um, zero. (One kid had cyanide Pixie sticks, but that was his dad's doing, trying to collect insurance. The rest are pure urban legend.) Year that the phrase "trick or treat" first appears in print? 1939? Can that be right? Yep. Witchcraft and other assorted claptrap? Not till the mid-twentieth century.

Meanwhile, there's All Saints' Day. It's entirely appropriate that on All Hallow's Eve eve I attended a celebration of one of those great old saints that populate your life. Martha Lyons died last week, and her funeral today was a time of grieving, mourning, gladness, gratefulness, and reunion.

I say reunion because it involved the Trinity diaspora. The dizzyingly huge church family I grew up in hasn't shrunk at all. It's just exploded into several dozen other church families, without losing any of its quiddity. Recently, we've had a couple of funerals that have brought us back into the same room together, and it's been gratifying to see that we who have gone the way of Paul and Barnabas, with anger and tears, have now continued going the way of Paul and Barnabas, embracing new opportunities and heading different directions, all the while cherishing deep family ties.

As for that remarkable moment that's just over the last hill, should we be angry that it's over, or glad that we had it to begin with?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

ok with that

I would like to know at what point the following shift occurred, and why. Before about 1990, someone would say, "That's OK with me." As of about 2000, it has been very common to hear someone say, "I'm OK with that."

Friday, October 27, 2006

what a week

What a week. Let's see: Catherine's car broke down forever, I injured my right hand (and have cancelled at least a few gigs), our house got fleas, the hard drive on my new computer died, barryland.com finally collapsed under the weight of thousands of spams per second, and Catherine resigned from her job.

Pardon me while I think about all that.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

sleeping patterns

It's interesting how quickly physical addictions happen. All my life I've slept alone, till two-and-a-half years ago. Yet, even though my habit of staying up late and sleeping till noon returns easily when I'm away from home, my habit of sleeping alone has been utterly obliterated. In less than a thousand nights, I've become so accustomed to Catherine's body next to mine that I ache for it when I'm away. I'll be spending the week at Baylor, as I do every semester. How will I survive?

Friday, October 13, 2006

a new gender-neutral term

It's no coincidence that the great strides females have made in recent centuries are mainly because of a conversation that's been happening in English. English is one of the few Indo-European languages not hampered by gender at every turn. People coming to it late in life say things like, "This language, she is so hard!"

Even so, English has its boy-girl difficulties, one being indefinite pronouns. People have gone into fits about it. Generally, most folks prefer to keep their pronouns sexed and sexist: "Whoever threw this thing away didn't know what he was doing." Academics go to acrobatic lengths to avoid it: "Whoever, uh, re-opportunized this thing didn't know what s/h(e) was doing." Smoother academics know how to avoid the whole issue altogether: "Whoever discarded this thing was uninformed."

If you are involved in any nonacademic organization, though, you wind up getting a good amount of entertainment from people who understand that they have to be nonsexist, but are a bit clumsy in the doing. Hence, this last Sunday, a minister, trying to direct the ceremony that would follow, ut tered a word I'd never heard: "Each deacon will then take communion themselve."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

remembering ruthie and howard

This last Saturday, the family was helping Catherine and me move. I picked up the old Royal typewriter that I'd kept since my childhood and showed it to Kathy. It put me in mind of her practice of letting 2-year-old Kenton type away at an old computer keyboard while she was at work in her home office. This is exactly what I used to do with my great aunt Ruthie, and this was the typewriter she let me use.

That typewriter, that day, became my madeleine. I wept and heaved in my wife's arms. Catherine and I had been living in this duplex for two years, I alone for three years before that. My great aunt and great uncle built it in nineteen sixty-two, to live the rest of their days together, brother and sister. It was only a few feet from where I was standing that I'd sat in Ruthie's entry/office and played. And today, the Brake family would be leaving this place forever. The whole day I was teary-eyed, pondering what these stones mean.

It was like saying goodbye to Ruthie and Howard all over again. They'd died when I was a boy, and Mom and Dad were the age I am now. Small as I was, though, I remember so much so vividly. Often when I pulled into their driveway I remembered pulling in in Ruthie's old sky-blue Cadillac and finishing our ice cream cones and listening to some elevatorish version of "The Alley Cat" on her eight-track player. I remember sitting on Howard's couch, right where Rich sat just the other day playing with his nephew, having a very serious discussion about whether you could hold your breath with your mouth open. Howard was saying you couldn't, but I thought you could, just by closing your glottis. I showed him, and invited him to put his finger in my mouth to test for wind. He did, but his finger jittered over to the side of my mouth and that grossed him out. Somewhere out there in this vast universe, he still doesn't believe me.

They were bachelor and bachelorette. Ruthie had a years-long thing with a leathery old rancher named Carl, but never married him. Howard, as far as I know, never had a romantic attachment. Since a few years after he died I've used his wonderful old four-poster bed, so high you have to crawl up into it; solid as ever, it's the one Catherine and I still use. I remember when I first moved into his old place, putting my Bay Rum right where he'd kept his, moving his bed back to where he'd had it. I'd just broken up with a wonderful woman, continuing a pattern of rejecting seemingly perfect women one after another. I lay in that bed and wondered whether I would become my uncle Howard, smart and peculiar and fun and alone.

But things changed. Just a few months after I moved into that place, I met Catherine. How I wish Ruthie and Howard could have known her! She would know them so well, I think, having already met them through me. I've always felt, for some reason, that I'm their inheritor in a way others in my family aren't. Probably everyone feels that way: it's called personal fable. But there they sit in my memory, living a short distance off society's socioeconomic grid, spontaneous and traveled and poor-but-rich, and getting their hands into a little of everything. I'm conscious of the role they played in my life, and I've tried to play that role for my nieces and nephews.

I remember Howard's "mmmmMellum" as he answered his phone; I remember his favorite introduction to verbal paragraphs, the mock-pompous "Inasmuch as, considering the facts of the case..."; I remember Ruthie's love of Oriental art and design, and of beauty of all kinds; I remember her giving voice to the statues and figurines in her house (the old Chinese man said "Oong-chong, oong-chong, oong-chong-lo," linguistically and politically incorrect, but unforgettable in that rusty merry voice); I remember Howard's jaundiced complexion and his baggy old-man pants.

He was an award-winning horticulturist; she was the first woman in Texas to get a Master's degree. They were just about everything you'd want in an aunt and uncle: open-minded, always loving, eccentric, generous. They made one tiny corner of the world a better place. And for five years I lived with their ghosts. Farewell, Ruthie and Howard.