Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

499. Thoughts on Fathers and Fatherhood

In Childhood, Family, parenting, people, reflections, Stories on June 20, 2021 at 5:33 am

As the hour clicks over into Father’s Day I can’t help but think of the fathers in my life, especially my dad and Andrew, my husband and our son’s dad. I can’t gush about them Hallmark-style, though; I love them both too much for that.

It is hard to be responsible for another person’s life. Fathers have long had to bear the responsibility for supporting their families financially, for literally keeping a roof over their heads; but in addition, many fathers provide so much more security for their children by their loving presence, the quality of their attention, and the model provided by their active parenting. Both my dad and Andrew provided that kind of security, each in their own distinct ways.

My father did everything wholeheartedly, with tremendous energy and conviction. He sang me to sleep, patting me rhythmically on the back as he did so. He read to my sister and me, throwing himself into each of the characters—voices, accents and all. He always believed us when we told him of a wrong done to us at school. When the nuns told me that left-handedness was a sign of an untidy mind and tried to make me use my right hand instead, he marched right over to set them straight. If we wanted something he would make it for us in secret—stilts for me, a doll’s house for sister Sally, Christmas cards for our mother to send to her family. Although Mum disapproved of my reading at the dinner table, Dad set an example for me by doing so, and I gladly followed his lead. He taught me how to swim by making me jump off the end of a jetty into the sea. He raised his voice when he got animated, agitated, or argumentative and inadvertently taught me to do the same.

Dad wasn’t afraid of trying new things, traveling to places where no one in his family had gone before, where he didn’t know a soul. He shared his adventures with us by taking us with him wherever he went. How can I ever forget the trip to Bhutan that we all took together in 1964, when I was ten? He emigrated to the United States from India when I was fifteen and Sally ten. Unsettling as that move was, we made it together, and Dad plunged into our new life as he did everything else—unafraid of meeting new people, doing things he had never done before from cross-country skiing (actually, Mum made him do that) to barbecuing, and teaching Americans things he knew and they didn’t.

My father was a teacher and an urban planner by profession but also an artist—a talented painter. His work involved interactions with all sorts of people, and he was a good communicator and a social animal. But his art was a personal passion and he followed it alone and single-mindedly, never forcing it on us unless we expressed interest in it, in which case he was delighted to share it. Same with all his pursuits, from tennis to swimming to leatherwork to orchid-collecting to weight-lifting to yoga. He practiced them avidly but didn’t impose any of them on us—except when he took up Maharashtrian cookery; then we were glad to be his guinea pigs as he worked his way through the cookbook.   

Thinking back to Andrew as a young father, he plunged into the new and unfamiliar role even before our son was born, attending birthing classes with me and driving me to the hospital in the snow with a midwifery manual in the back of the car. He gave Baby Nikhil his first bath—I was too afraid that I might scald or drop him—and pampered me so much after the birth that I didn’t have to change a single diaper for at least two weeks.

When we lived on the farm Andrew always played actively with little Nikhil and Eric, making building blocks for them and building teeteringly tall towers with a string tied to the bottom block for the boys to yank gleefully and cry out, “Accident!” Guess who picked up all the blocks every time only to build them up all over again? (It certainly wasn’t me.) In the winter he helped the children make snowmen and a built a Zamboni to smooth the ice on the pond so that we could pull them around and around on sleds. In the early spring he took them with him to tap and collect the sap from the maple trees; and in the summer he trundled Nikhil to the garden to pick tomatoes in the little red wagon. He built an easel that was permanently set up in Nikhil’s room with a fresh sheet of paper and watercolors at the ready, where Nikhil drew his first stick figures and, after watching 101 Dalmations, a terrifying painting of Cruela de Vil with fingernails almost as long as her hair.

Later, when Nikhil was a schoolboy, Andrew carved and decorated wooden swords and shields for him and, at one memorable birthday party, made a sword for each and every one of his friends. When he had map-making or model-building homework for school or Cub Scouts (which were notorious for assigning complicated projects like go-carts that only the parents could make), Andrew was right in there with him, problem-solving and thinking it through systematically. He assistant-coached when Nikhil was in Little League baseball and again, in high school, for Ultimate Frisbee. I don’t think he missed a single one of his games.

My first job after completing my graduate studies was too far away for a daily commute, so for several years I had to spend two nights a week away from home. During those years Andrew was responsible for getting Nikhil up and off to school on time. The task became progressively harder, since teenagers are notoriously sleep-deprived. Because Andrew couldn’t bear to jolt Nikhil out of bed he would invariably let him sleep a little longer, missing the school bus. In senior year of high school I don’t think there was a single day that Andrew didn’t drive him to school in the morning, even though the bus came to the door.

how to cut a pomegranate (az cookbook.com)

Looking back, I see that Andrew was the laid-back parent where I was the anxious one. When I fussed and fretted too much over homework, a messy room, troublesome teachers, or college applications, Andrew would find a way to defuse the tension. During the seven months we lived in India while I was doing my dissertation research, Andrew played cricket with Nikhil and his cousins, bought and filled brass pichkaris (super-soakers) for playing Holi, learned and showed Nikhil how to break open a pomegranate into a perfect star-shape. I, on the other hand, was making sure that he addressed all his aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles correctly or that he ate using his right hand (hard, that, since he was left-handed).

While I graded student papers or sat for hours at the computer, father and son would play boisterous games of darts and watch movies together (some of which I might not have approved of had I been there). Later, when Nikhil was a budding filmmaker his dad was his biggest fan and supporter, always on hand to make or repair anything that needed his carpentry or design skills, taking on every project as if it was his own; later still, reading his screenplays and giving him feedback; or dreaming up his own movie plots and sending them to Nikhil; or making bound notebooks for every member of the cast and crew.

As a father, Andrew was very like my own dad in one respect: he would never force his child to do the things he himself did, especially chores that involved hard physical work. While many fathers would make their sons mow the lawn, shovel snow, chop firewood, or work on the car, Andrew would quietly go out and do all those jobs himself, giving Nikhil the time and space to develop his own interests and skills.

This Father’s Day, I honor my own father and the father of our son. Even at times when they themselves may have been struggling, they remained loving, active, and supportive presences in their children’s lives; they both gave of themselves unsparingly without pressuring their offspring to follow in their footsteps; and they both took tremendous pride in their children’s accomplishments. It’s going on five years since my father passed away, but hardly a day passes when I don’t remember something he taught me or smile at one of his exploits, sayings, or quirks. It’s going on fifteen years since our son grew up and left home, but I feel sure that he could say the same of his dad.

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199. Quest

In Stories on May 16, 2021 at 9:59 pm

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The Destruction of Sennacherib by Gustav Dore (swartzentrover.com)

For centuries human beings, armed and dangerous, have taken to the roads and seas, setting out for distant lands in search of riches, precious commodities that they can rob and pillage through trickery and violence, and bear back home as their own. They have subjugated the people whose wealth they have appropriated and sought to convince them—and themselves—that divine Providence, not all-too-human Greed, wields their sword. Their goal, as they swoop down like a plague on their unsuspecting victims, is conquest.

Lao Tzu with disciple (zeigua.com) Lao Tzu with disciple (zeigua.com)

But there’s another urge that has impelled the wanderers of the world to its four corners. This impulse is quickened by a desire to meet and mingle with fellow human beings different from themselves, a love of beauty, an ever-renewed sense of wonder. Their goal is not to despoil, to enslave men to toil, to plant their flags in foreign soil. Their…

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498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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297. Metamorphosis?

In Stories on April 16, 2021 at 2:45 pm

I have owned a so-called smartphone—or, perhaps more accurately, it has owned me—for more than six years now. I wrote this piece soon afterwards.

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(from biologyoftechnology.com) (from biologyoftechnology.com)

The other morning I woke up from a vivid but fragmentary nightmare which faded out of reach almost immediately, as dreams are wont to do. I tried to recover it so that I could set it down in words, but in vain, and so gave up on the effort; until now, when its implications have returned to me with renewed force.

In the dream I had awakened, like Gregor in Kafka’s haunting story, The Metamorphosis, to find my human body hardened into, or possibly, cocooned in, a non-human shell. But exactly a century after the publication of Kafka’s story, the horror was taking a new form. My non-human carapace was not the exoskeleton of an insect, but the casing of a so-called smartphone.

It had only been a month since my simple cell (mobile) phone had finally conked out and, after years of resistance, I had finally capitulated and joined…

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497. Euphemisms

In blogs and blogging, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2021 at 2:02 am

This is the fifth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

By definition, idioms have a meaning “not deducible from those of the individual words” that make them up; their meaning is metaphorical and can only be divined through usage. Euphemisms are a class of idioms that double down on this definition by deliberately concealing their meaning for the purpose of softening something embarrassing or unpleasant.

As R.W. Holder put it in his How Not to Say What You Mean, euphemisms are the language of evasion, hypocrisy, prudery and deceit. They are frequently deployed to skirt the subjects of death (as in “passed”–like a kidney stone?), bodily functions (unfortunately named “comfort stations” for public toilets), and sexual misconduct ( a “player” for a sexual predator)—all sexual conduct (“making whoopee”), for that matter. They may be quite acceptable when they seek to comfort or protect, for example, a person who is grieving, although sometimes I wonder whether beating around the bush protects the bereaved or the speaker. In fact, I think that euphemisms most often serve to protect the speaker from discomfort–or worse, from a public outcry or even criminal prosecution.

Businesses routinely employ euphemisms when giving their workers the boot, attempting to put a better public face on what is a sad and ugly business any way you look at it. “Letting them go” is the least of it, since “I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go,” suggests reluctance to part with the employee. When someone is made redundant, the passive construction suggests that it was no one’s decision, just a consequence of the March of Progress. When downsizing—sorry, rightsizing—demands mass layoffs, they are often referred to as trimming the fat, as if the lazy workers are all that stand in the way of a leaner, meaner organization.

But the most pernicious deception, in my view, is practiced by so-called intelligence organizations and the military. Even their names are euphemisms. Until 1949 the combined departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force had been called the War Department because that was what it did; soon after WWII was over, in 1949, the United States, now the ruler of the Free World, renamed it the Department of Defense. It now appeared that the nation with by far the world’s largest military and arms industry, the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, was not a bully or a warmonger, but a defender of freedom and democracy. And as for military intelligence, well, that’s an oxymoron as well as a euphemism. In this regard I recommend an illuminating 2019 article (and podcast) by Stephen J. Thorne, Euphemisms, Acronyms, and Outright Lies: The Language of War  and a recent article by Margot Williams on euphemisms used by apologists of torture at Guantánamo Bay.

Here are just a few of the military euphemisms which vie for the most sickening in my book:  
conflict: war (John Prine’s Sam Stone hits this nail on the head.)
enhanced interrogation: torture
extraordinary rendition: torture by proxy
taking [someone] out: killing
collateral damage: civilian casualties
friendly fire: accidental shooting by someone on one’s own side.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, 2006 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If you’ve been following my posts in this anachronidioms series you may be wondering in what sense these euphemisms are anachronistic. Sadly, they’re not, in that they’re still very much with us. However, we forget their relatively recent origins at our peril. Several of these terms have been in use for decades—as slang, in private military circles, or, if used in the print media, then only in quotation marks—but have officially entered the language quite recently, since the 1990s or early 2000s. Learning of the context and purpose of their emergence may help immunize us against accepting them as normal.

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496. Dancing in the Street

In blogs and blogging, Family, Greece, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2021 at 3:26 am

This is the fourth entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Dancing is movement and movement is change. Dancing in the street is an inherently liberating idea because it moves from a private, contained space to the public thoroughfare. When people get up and dance, circulation happens, and circulation is anathema to stagnation, segregation, incarceration, a threat to the status quo in any number of ways. Of course, circulation is essential to life, and dancing, more than anything else, is life.  

There are dozens of dance-related idioms in English alone: it takes two to tango, give it a whirl, be or to get in the groove, tread on someone’s toes, step out of line, be footloose and fancy free, light on one’s feet, get off on the wrong foot, sweep someone off their feet, look lively, and strut one’s stuff, just to name a few. None of the above are particularly anachronistic, with the possible exception of in the groove, with its origins in gramophone or phonograph records, which released the sound when the record player’s needle, or stylus, came into contact with the rotating surface of the grooved record (originally shellac, and after the 1940s, vinyl).

How does dancing figure in my personal A-to-Z of anachronidioms?

My mother loved dancing–in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she lived to dance. My father loved music, but far preferred to tap his feet and watch. In post-war London of the late 1940s and early 1950, before she got married, Mum used to go dancing every week with her best friend Lily. They would go to the movies every week as well, or as often as they could afford, to see American films, mostly, with Frank Sinatra and other heartthrobs of the time. Bill, my eldest cousin and eleven years my senior, remembers jiving with his cool Aunt Glad to Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and the Comets. That must have been in 1956, when, if I was two, Bill was turning thirteen. Mum knew loads of different dances and was always learning new ones. Parties in those days always featured music and dancing—in fact, dancing was the whole point of the party as far as she was concerned. When there was no one at home to dance with, Mum would rub two rags in floor polish, attach them to her feet, and dance, polishing the parquet floor as she did so and, in place of a partner, swinging round the column in the middle of the living-room floor.

Three dance-related idioms have a special meaning for me, and are anachronistic in the sense that they take me right back to a bygone time. The first calls up my (non-dancing) father and one of his favorite expressions. I hadn’t thought of it for years until I was brainstorming for today’s entry: to make a song and dance. It means to make an unnecessary fuss about something, to make a production out of it. Dad was characteristically short-tempered, and he used this when he was annoyed with someone who, instead of just getting something done, made a song and dance about it, or—another expression of his—a hoo-ha, a big fuss over nothing. (I never got the impression that Dad approved of Mum’s swooning over the song-and-dance men of the silver screen, He certainly didn’t care for Frank Sinatra, and I can’t help think it had something to do with Mum loving him so much.)

The second of my triad of dance-related anachronidioms: to put on one’s dancing shoes. This means, to get into a positive frame of mind or to get ready to party. For me it will always and forever be associated with the summer of 1963, our third and last summer in Athens, when I was nine years old and my parents took us to an open-air movie screening (not a drive-in, no-one had a car) to see Summer Holiday, starring the British pop singer, Cliff Richard (now Sir Cliff Richard–the Queen has a soft spot for him). In it, our hero and his boy band rent a red double-decker bus and drive overland to Greece in it, finding romance along the way, of course. Put on Your Dancing Shoes was one of the movie’s many musical number. I cringe as I watch it today—it hasn’t aged well; but back then, it was pure romance.  

My third dance-related anachronidiom, two left feet,  takes me back to 1967 in Gangtok, Sikkim, and the kind of shame that makes one’s cheeks burn. I was just 13, a particularly self-conscious age, and visiting a school friend over a week-long break when her parents invited some young members of the Sikkimese royal family over for the evening. It was embarrassing enough to be introduced to these princelings in my early-teen clumsiness, but the nightmare began when it was suggested that some entertainment was in order, and that entertainment was ballroom dancing. I froze; the only dance I knew how to do was something called the African Twist, that some exchange students from the U.S. to our school in India had taught us. Somebody put on a record, paired us up, and announced a foxtrot.

I won’t dwell on the awful details. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t even fake it. He knew it and I knew he knew it, although he was terribly well brought up and smoothed things over with the utmost finesse. Of course his princely education must have covered ballroom dancing, but that didn’t help; it wasn’t in my repertoire and it takes two to foxtrot. Two left feet on my part, and some treading on toes into the bargain.

Martha and the Vandellas (Photo: Motown/EMI-Hayes Archives)

There is another category of dance-related anachronidioms: song titles. They epitomize a particular moment in time and their very opening notes conjure it up. Some of them resonate deeply, cutting across nations, classes, ages, races, genders, rising to the status of anthems. When the song’s title is also an idiom, it is all the more evocative. For me these songs would have to include two by Bob Marley and the Wailers: Get Up, Stand Up and Lively Up Yourself and Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul. But the one I want to pay tribute to today is the Motown hit Dancing in the Street, sung by Martha and the Vandellas, co-written by producer Micky Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter, and released in the explosive summer of 1964. Motown was in the business of making hits, not revolution, and they were very good at it. They swore that the song was just about city children in Detroit taking the caps off the fire hydrants during the heat of the summer, and its promotional video featured crowds of young people, almost all white, groovin’ to the beat; but something about the song made it a call to action, despite the best efforts of the record company.

Martha Reeves told the story in an interview during the summer of 2020, when the entire nation was swept by protests following the killings of Armaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Tayor, Jacob Blake, and too many more. According to music critic Jim Farber, writing in the Guardian:

Right after she recorded the exuberant anthem in July of 1964 as frontwoman of Martha and the Vandellas, it became a worldwide smash, selling millions of copies while serving as the song of its summer. At the same time, its lyrical “invitation across the nation … for folks to meet” in the street – matched to a melody and vocal as urgent as a clarion call – soon took on a second, more pointed, meaning. The transformation took place during the long, hot summers of 1964 and 65, “when riots broke out, in every city in the nation”, Reeves recalled. “Just like now, the police brutality and the government trying to control black people, prompted the uprising that was a revolution.”

I first heard Dancing in the Street in 1968, from those American exchange students from Detroit (or was it Chicago?) at our boarding school in India, the same ones who had taught me the African Twist. I had never heard any Motown before that. I had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, either, until his assassination was announced at the school assembly one April morning, and Laura and Joanne burst into tears. It was clear that there was a great ferment taking place back in the United States, a country that I didn’t know I was to migrate to in less than two years. By the time I got to the United States and heard more Motown at parties in college, it was the sound of white nostalgia. Inevitably, at a certain point in the party, usually quite late, someone would put on My Girl, and all the merriment would grind to a halt. There would be an almost religious hush, followed by an ecstatic singalong; and I would just stand there, alienated, because My Girl didn’t mean anything to me. It was just an anachronism; unlike Dancing in the Street, which was part of my history, even if only at second hand.

Did I mention that besides all of the above, dancing in the streets is a dance-related idiom? It means being extremely happy. Fully alive.

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495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my peers who had never left the country.

Anachronisms in Downton Abbey (Carnival Film & Television Ltd./ Masterpiece)

“My” Britishisms are those of my generation, but also of my parents’ generation and of the books I read as a child. Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching British films or television series with me knows that the Americanisms in them are my biggest pet peeve, especially in period pieces set in an era long before today’s U.S. cultural dominance. But Standard English of the 1950s and 1960s is dated, and mine was probably already becoming dated back then, given that I was reading books written still earlier, from the Edwardian era into the early post-WWII period. Then too, the English of early post-Independence India, like the colonizer’s language in any ex-colonial society, was itself fast becoming archaic.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Find the total cost of 2 ½ cwt. of metal at £2 3s. 6d. per cwt., plus a total charge of 4s. 6d. for cartage.

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

an ell

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

On occasion my mother and my uncles used to use an expression that they never explained to me but I got the gist of through context. Speaking of a broken man, someone who was a shadow of his former self or had gone seriously downhill, they would say, shaking their heads, that he had gone for a Burton. I haven’t heard anyone but their generation use it and haven’t heard it in use at all these thirty years at least. Looking it up a couple of weeks ago I found that it originated in the Second World War and refereed to an airman whose plane had been shot down or any serviceman who was missing and presumed dead. For Navy men gone for a Burton might refer to their being presumed drowned, in the drink, whether literally or figuratively; especially since Burton had also been the name of a brewery and brand of beer.

(Incidentally, I learned that the American equivalent of this expression was bought the farm, which I only know from John Prine’s song, Jesus, the Missing Years, with the matchless refrain:
Charlie bought some popcorn, Billy bought a car/Someone almost bought the farm, but they didn’t go that far/Things shut down at midnight, at least round here they do/’Cause we all reside down the block inside of 23 Skidoo.)

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

No discussion of British anachronidioms in my family would be complete without a mention of Cockney rhyming slang. My mother made a point of speaking Standard English, probably because of how hard she’d had to fight for the education that had insisted on it, but on rare occasions when she was visiting her family in England and they’d all had a few drinks, they’d drop the airs and graces, let their hair down, and have a good old knees-up. (Here’s a 1940 rendition of the song) That was when the Cockney rhyming slang began to flow. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it usually consists of a pair of words of which the second word rhyme with the word one is referring to, but to make it all the more obscure, only the first, non-rhyming word is used. For example, saying someone is “mutton”, means they’re deaf, from Mutt and Jeff, the American syndicated comic strip (1907-1983). There’s “me old trouble” (trouble and strife, wife), “china” (china plate, mate), “use your loaf” (loaf of bread, head); and “a nice cup of Rosy” (Rosy Lea, tea). As far as I can tell at a distance, since I’ve been based in the United States these past 50+ years, rhyming slang is becoming more an affectation than the natural expression of the verbally exuberant Londoners who gave it its name.

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493. Animalidioms

In culture, Stories, Words & phrases on April 1, 2021 at 11:58 pm

This is the first entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

As it happens, the title of my first-year composition classes this semester is Humans and Other Animals. We’ve been reading and writing about human and non-human animals, human-animal bonding, the ethics of “pet” ownership, animal rights vs. animal welfare, anthropomorphism, non-human personhood, sentience and consciousness. Soon we’ll have to look the future in the eye and contemplate the Anthropocene and its implications for us all. We’ve also been forced to recognize the depth of human cruelty to non-human animals as we use and abuse them for our own benefit in every arena in which we interact, whether it’s in the home or the shelter, in the farm, factory, or forest, in the zoo or the circus, the laboratory or the slaughterhouse, for sustenance or for sport. It’s inhuman, to say the least. We use them literally but also in a manner of speaking, not only shoveling them into our mouths by the millions but rolling them liberally off our tongues. I’m talking about animal idioms.

It’s been almost exactly 100 years since more Americans lived in urban areas than in the country, but we still use anachronistic agricultural idioms unthinkingly every day. We try to make hay while the sun shines, pity those with a long row to hoe, dismiss small potatoes, discriminatingly separate the wheat from the chaff. But these sayings are as nothing compared to the beasts of the field that we sacrifice in speech. Some of these sayings may seem relatively benign, but when you call a spade a spade benign enslavement is still enslavement.

Unnecessarily, we beat a dead horse; we take pleasure in someone’s else’s goose being cooked. Churlishly, we look a gift horse in the mouth and when we’re gobsmacked, we stone the crows. Some of us will talk the hind leg off a donkey, running our mouths, while others run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

We seem to have a special venom reserved for the humble pig, perhaps because of its intelligence, or its similar tastes to our own. We make it wallow in its own filth and then label it unclean. The heads of our households bring home the bacon, while our fools cast pearls before swine, or try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Our savagery and deceit are exposed when we let the cat out of the bag or try to make someone buy a pig in a poke, and when we say someone has had more fun than a barrel of monkeys. So much fun (not)!

“Man’s best friend” doesn’t fare much better. At his best, he looks like a dog’s dinner, but mostly, he leads a dog’s life, and is frequently in the doghouse being punished. Even when we tell ourselves that “our animals” are safe with us, our idioms suggest otherwise. Why, then, does the prospect of the chickens coming home to roost set off alarm bells? And why do those placid cows take their sweet time to come home?

Especially since I’ve been teaching about human treatment of non-human animals, I am struck anew by the violence of these images and the harsh light they shine on us. Sadly, even as I set out to explore anachronistic idioms, I find that this cruelty is alive and well, even when we may no longer be yoking our oxen to the plow every morning, or trying to drag that stubborn mule somewhere it is determined not to go. I can’t listen to Bing Crosby exhorting children to  Swing on a Star without wincing at:

A pig is an animal with dirt on his face
His shoes are a terrible disgrace
He has no manners when he eats his food
He’s fat and lazy and extremely rude
But if you don’t care a feather or a fig
You may grow up to be a pig.

But I don’t mind John Prine, in It’s A Big Old Goofy World, reminding us that we are the stupid ones:

Why it’s clear as a bell
I should have gone to school
I’d be wise as an owl
Stead of stubborn as a mule.

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453. Bangladesh

In Stories on March 26, 2021 at 12:56 pm

On this 50th Anniversary of the Independence of Bangladesh, I am reposting a 2020 piece on my experience of this horrific war as a new immigrant to the U.S.

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This is the second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Bangladesh.

We had been in the United States for little more than a year when the news from the subcontinent started to get dire. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League had won the regional elections in East Pakistan (as it was called in 1947 after the British Partition of India), previously Eastern Bengal (after the British Partition of Bengal in 1905), previously still part of an undivided Bengal, but the Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan had refused to recognize the results of the election. Instead, he launched Operation Searchlight, a brutal military campaign of mass killings and rape designed to crush the resistance and resolve of the people of East Pakistan, a campaign that many…

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