Very Bad Papa

Way back in 1984, I learned about a contest devoted to writing “really bad Hemingway.” If you won, you got a trip for two to Florence, Italy, and dinner at Harry’s Bar & American Grill, which is located in that city. The word count was very limited, and you had to mention Harry’s. Typically, I wrote an entry for it but then never sent it in. I held onto it all these years, perhaps knowing that one day in the dim future I would have my very own blog and publish whatever I damn well pleased. He was my entry:

At first there were the radishes, then there were all the others. But for a long time there were the radishes. You could sit by the edge of the garden in the spring when the work had not gone well and you could feel the hunger there with you and the loneliness that came with a wasted day. And because it was only May you had only radishes to eat, and so you stored up your hunger for the others that would come later.

You took some radishes and put salt on them and ate them and wondered when the good days would come. There had been good days before, you thought. You could see them clearly now because of the hunger. There had been the days in Vorarlberg when you learned how to whistle and the snowy nights there when you first read the foreign books with the long, funny words you had to look up. And later there was the fighting over bingo in the Poconos when men cried out but the food was plain and hot and served by shy girls who smiled at you when the fighting was bad. And there were the free haircuts near the big river when you were a boy. And Harry’s. There always was Harry’s.

But now you had just the salty radishes and the wine Mickey Rooney gave you before he left for Spain, and told you to drink only if you needed it.

“Here,” Mickey Rooney said of the wine.

“How will I know when I need it?”

“There will be no difficulty.”

“Thank you, carabao.”

“It goes well with things that are red.”

“Adios, carabao.”

The wine was clear and good and it filled up the place that was lonely, but the radishes sent only a post card to the place that was hungry. Still, it did not feel so bad, sitting with the sun streaming over your shoulder. Then the girls from the high school next door came out and played on the field, and you watched through the fence and things went better. You watched the bright faces and you decided the next day would be a good day for earthworms. Soon you would sell enough live bait so you could leave the town and later you would remember that it had been a good town for earthworms.

But now there was nothing to do but dig again into the garden with your hands and hope to fill your coffee can and pray you didn’t get caught by the one who owned the garden. And you tried to stay sound and good until the next rain, when the worms would crawl right out off the ground and wriggle into dollar signs in the bottom of the can.

Reckless: My Q&A with Carrie Welton

Not so long ago (actually a really, really long time ago – in 1874, to be exact), I got a chance to sit down for a chat with the main character and driving force of my novel “Carrie Welton.” As you will see, she was observing her 32nd birthday but was in no mood for celebration. Even at that young age, she was looking back upon her life with some fond memories and a few regrets. Her thoughts regarding her domineering father, her greatest happiness, how her mother readied her for guests as a young girl, her love of mountain climbing and her stallion Knight may surprise, alarm or delight you. But please read it for yourself by going to the full interview here.

I would like to thank historyimagined.wordpress.com for the opportunity to interview my main character. You can find many similar character explorations there.

And as always, you can find “Carrie Welton” to purchase here at amazon.com.

Housefly Management

housefly

Hunters like to use the word “management” to describe the act of killing animals, and so might we as we set about clearing our indoor ecosystem of unwanted pests. Most indoor creatures tend to overbreed if given half a chance, but, luckily for us, most are also rather slow and easy to “manage.” Such is not the case with the housefly, however. The fly is a formidable enemy, more in the manner of a sniper or a guerrilla than a selfless foot soldier (the ant) or a foe easily trapped by its own greed (the mouse). The fly is fast and devious, and it travels light.

So how to manage this trickster? Purchase a Venus flytrap? This may provide a few moments of ghoulish fascination, but it fights flies about as effectively as wearing light-colored clothing fights dandruff. Get mad and stomp through the house brandishing a flyswatter or baseball bat? This can be mightily satisfying from time to time, but it’s really no way for a human being to act. Open the front door and hope the fly goes outside? I think not.

No, the only path to successful housefly management is to do the following.

  1. As you are sitting in a chair, contentedly reading, the fly will land on the page, usually on the very word you are trying to read. This is a fly that has been cheerfully buzzing around the house for several days now. You have noticed it and been vaguely irritated by its presence, but before now you were never in a position to do anything about it. Now you are.
  2. Empty your brain of everything but the thought that your are going to get this fly.
  3. Shift your position slightly so that your striking hand is freed and the book or magazine lies firmly yet comfortably against your thigh. During this shift, the fly will quickly sail off on a tour of the room, but in a few moments it will come back to the exact same spot on the page.
  4. Pretend to continue reading, perhaps even arching an eyebrow or murmuring as if in reaction to a point made by the author—but actually you are not reading. You are staring at the fly.
  5. Assess the situation. You are now a menace to the fly. The fly knows it. You know it. Fortunately, your brain is quite a bit larger than the fly’s (in most cases), so its concentration will falter before yours does. While waiting for this lapse to occur, observe the fly in detail and build up hatred toward it. Was there ever a more revolting, disease-ridden, worthless, insolent pest? Dwell of these adjectives and others you may think of yourself.
  6. As the fly’s concentration lags, it will take two or three quick steps across the page. At this point, very slowly raise your striking hand, with the palm  as flat and hard as you can make it. Make sure that the shadow case by your hand does not overtake the fly and startle it, and also be sure that your nonstriking hand retains a firm grip on the book or magazine.
  7. As your hand rises, the fly again will tense up, but it will not flee unless your hand gets too close. Twelve inches has been proven by scientists to be about the right distance.
  8. Hold your position until the fly again forgets you are there. If the phone rings, ignore it. If your legs are falling asleep, bear with it. If your raised arm feels like it’s falling off, be brave. The fly is all.
  9. As soon as the fly makes a move—it will either take a tentative step or begin rubbing its filthy little front legs together—turn your head away as if attracted by something across the room. The fly will look up, too, to see what’s so interesting. As it does, bring your open hand down on it with everything you’ve got.
  10. Rest until you’ve regained your composure. As soon as you have, slowly lift your hand and peer beneath it. If you’ve missed, take a deep breath and try to resume your reading (it will be hard). If you’ve scored a hit, go wash your hands and then throw away the book or magazine, as no subsequent reader will care to wander into the scene of the crime.
housefly-pattern

Scientists are studying the amazing similarities between a housefly’s flight patterns around the interior of a house and the routes of America’s major airlines.

Kudos for “Carrie”!

 

It is so gratifying to see the good reviews come in for “Carrie Welton.” There are 23 reviews now at amazon.com with an average rating of 4.9 stars out of 5. You can see them here.

Most recently comes a coveted “Editor’s Choice” designation from the Historical Novel Society. The last paragraph of that reviews reads:

“Let me assure you that this is not a poor-little-rich-girl sob story, but a textured, penetrating portrayal of real persons and actual events. Charles Monagan writes a terrific tale in Carrie Welton, one of the smoothest reads I’ve seen in a long time. Mr. Monagan’s career as an award-winning writer and editor spans decades, but this is his first novel. I hope it won’t be his last. Highly recommended.”

You can find the entire review here.

I have a vagrant dream that “Carrie” will somehow be discovered by a larger audience and that the HBO TV series version of her life will be played by Saoirse Ronan in an unforgettable performance.

ronan.jpeg

Important Question: Can Saoirse Ronan ride a horse?

For for anything like that to happen, lightning must somehow strike. And I don’t mean me getting electrocuted on the golf course.

CAM: Author Interview

I was recently given a host of questions by a reader’s website called seriousreading.com I guess so they could publish a little content along with a review of my new book “Carrie Welton.” The review didn’t amount to much (although it was 5 stars out of 5!!), but I thought you might enjoy the Q&A.

A common misconception regarding authors is that they are socially inept, how true is that?
Not at all true in my case! In fact, I can give the impression of being quite outgoing and socially smooth and suave – especially when answering a series of written questions while safely at home, seated alone at my desk.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
Probably “Goodnight Moon.” The simple magic in those pages has always bewitched me and made me drowsy.
When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?
On the first day of 1st Grade, the teacher opened up a big book in the front of the class, and all it said on the first page was “Look.” And I remember thinking that I could do better than that.
Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?
With “Carrie Welton,” the ending was in large part predetermined by actual events, but how she ended up on that stormy mountainside was, from the beginning, always in doubt. When I began, I had no idea she would do the crazy things she did or travel to the places she went.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
Sitting down, shutting out the world and pounding it out.
What would you say is the easiest aspect of writing?
Re-reading a paragraph that turned out really well.
Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
There are so many in my personal pantheon, but those among the living include Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Haruki Murakami, Edna O’Brien, Anne Tyler, Amy Bloom, and recently I loved books by Ben Fountain and Chad Harbach. In the realm of nonfiction, I am looking forward with the greatest possible anticipation to Robert Caro’s final volume on Lyndon B. Johnson. “Towering” doesn’t begin to describe it.
How would you feel if no one showed up at your book signing?
That happened to me once, at a library in Connecticut. I had driven an hour to get there and I was angry at the person in charge. “You asked me to come,” I said to her, “and that carries with it a certain responsibility to gather an audience. It doesn’t have to be a large audience, but some people do have to be here. There can’t be no one.” She seemed to have no idea of what I was talking about.
Do you read and reply to the reviews and comments of your readers?
Yes. I don’t see how anyone could not. Most writers are hungry for feedback. They work in seclusion, or something approaching it, they finish with a great sense of elation and sometimes emptiness, they go through the publication process, and then the book gets tossed out into the world like a stone skipping across water. Will anyone notice? Will anyone care? How many skips will it get before it sinks? Such are some of the writer’s typical insecurities. Any feedback, good or even bad, helps fend them off. So go ahead and write that online review or comment.
Does a bad review affect your writing?
No, just my mood.
Any advice you would like to give to aspiring writers?
No one cares as much about what you write as you do.
Do you recall the first ever book/novel you read?
The first one that stuck with me was “The Lost City.” It was a Rick Brant Science-Adventure Story in the manner of the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, aimed at young boys. Very 1947, although I didn’t get to it until around 1960.
When you were young, did you ever see writing as a career or full-time profession?
I did, but as a newspaper reporter, which is how I began my career. I then transitioned into writing for magazines, then editing magazines, then writing nonfiction books, a musical and finally a novel.
Do you like traveling or do you prefer staying indoors?
I once wrote a book called “The Reluctant Naturalist” that basically enumerated all the bad things that can happen to you once you get out of bed. However, I will say that staying in bed all day in a foreign country can make for a nice change of pace.
Did any of your books get rejected by publishers?
That happened to one of my books, “How to Get a Monkey Into Harvard,” which was rejected by about 30 publishers before Grove took it. And then even after it was accepted it was rejected. My editor left and no one took the book up. It languished. Sad.
Have any of your books been adapted into a feature film?
No, but one of them was translated into Flemish.
How did it feel when your first book got published?
There used to be an event in Manhattan called Book Country. They’d close down Fifth Avenue on a Sunday afternoon and line the sidewalks with book stalls, one for each participating publisher. Atheneum was the publisher of my first book, “The Neurotic’s Handbook,” and they decided to feature my book on that day in 1982. Not only did I get to man my booth and trade witticisms with the passing crowd, but one of the windows of the adjacent Scribner’s Bookstore was filled with my book. I’ve had few better days.
Has it ever happened to you that someone published your story in their own name?
It happened to me once at my college newspaper. I’d written a humor piece only to have it see print under someone else’s byline. That was bad enough, but what was worse was that I came back five years later for a campus visit to see the paper had reprinted my story as a kind of classic – and it still carried the wrong byline!
Do contemporary writers have the kind of animosity that competitors in showbiz seem to have?
It’s probably a little odd, but in my life I have virtually no contact with other writers. I don’t know if this is good or bad. I suppose it keeps me from feeling any great animosity toward anyone else. But it keeps me from feeling collegial love, too. I will confess to strong feelings of competitiveness, even with those I don’t know personally, but that’s probably a healthy thing and good for the writing.
Do you need to be in a specific place or room to write, or you can just sit in the middle of a café full of people and write?
While writing “Carrie Welton,” I found my sweet spot at a nearby library (in Southbury, Connecticut) that was large enough for me to hide away happily and undisturbed in various nooks. The hushed ambient noise of the patrons and HVAC system was perfect as I toiled away with my ballpoint pen and yellow legal pad. I mentioned the library in the book’s acknowledgements.
What’s your favorite movie which was based on a book?
So many! Strangers on a Train, All the President’s Men, The Godfather, Tarzan and His Mate, Carrie, Schindler’s List, Donnie Brasco, From Here to Eternity, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, The Magnificent Ambersons, Goldfinger, Goodfellas . . .
Which literary character do you most resonate with on a personal level?
As a young man (and maybe still), it was Nick Carraway, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby.” He was bright and earnest, keenly observant, a nice, peaceable guy but not a pushover, diplomatic when he needed to be, but still somewhat callow and unformed. And of course all those beautiful sentences were said in his voice!

Book Excerpt: Trouble at the Ball

In the weeks ahead, I will run on this website several brief excerpts from “Carrie Welton,” my novel that will be published in April. I hope they give you a taste of the book as a whole as they introduce you to several of the key characters.

This first excerpt comes fairly early in the book. Carrie is 18 and still living, miserably, in Waterbury, CT. Her mother, Jane Welton, is a consummate party-giver, and here we look in on her greatest triumph, a Thanksgiving ball (1858) modeled after a famous gala thrown by the Duchess of Richmond in Belgium in 1815, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. For this ball, Jane has had constructed an impossibly lavish temporary pavilion on the grounds of their estate, Rose Hill. She has even hired young men to dress as soldiers and mingle with the crowd. The narrator is Frederick Kingsbury, who lives across the street from the Weltons and who, with his wife Alathea, has taken a special comforting interest in Carrie and her troubles – such an interest that they have just been warned in the most threatening terms by her father, Joseph Welton, to stay away from her. Here, Frederick Kingsbury has just spotted Carrie across the ballroom. She has been away at a school in New Haven since summer and he wants to rush over to greet her, but he’s afraid of family repercussions if he does. Then he sees Joseph Welton’s brother, George, in the crowd:

 

“I say, Welton!” I shouted, putting an arresting hand on his arm. “Do you know where your brother is? I want to congratulate him on this miraculous achievement!”

“He is gone!” George Welton shouted back. “Called away at the last moment to New York on business!”

“Called away on Thanksgiving?”

“So it would seem!”

He moved off into the crowd as the orchestra started up a reel and the dance floor quickly filled with swirling petticoats. I remained uncertain about what to do. I did not doubt that Joseph Welton was not present, but I could not be sure he was truly away. He could be lurking somewhere, standing just outside the building in a spot where he could see but not be seen. Alathea caught me deep in my considerations.

“You are not dancing, Freddie,” she scolded me. I could tell by the way she’d addressed me that she’d had a second glass of wine. “Surely we have not grown so old that we cannot dance!”

I held up a hand.

“Look over there to the left of the staircase, a little in its shadow, and tell me what you see,” I said, indicating the way.

She followed my gaze and watched for a moment.

“She has just spotted us, and me looking at her, and yet turned away,” said Alathea. “We must go see her.”

“Mightn’t that put her in danger?” I asked. “Welton was very blunt.”

“Guests may speak freely with each other at a ball—in fact that is one of its primary purposes—and I have not spoken with Carrie in more than five months. I cannot believe we would not be allowed to go say hello to her.”

Alathea rushed off in Carrie’s direction, but I did not follow. I held back, looking out for Welton or even his wife, although Jane was surely not thinking of her daughter on this evening.

Carrie did not flee at Alathea’s approach, but she regarded it uneasily. She held out a hand, which my wife took warmly. Carrie gestured toward her companion.

“Mrs. Kingsbury, are you acquainted with Gilbert Stocking? He is the son of Deacon Stocking and is now at Yale.”

Alathea and Stocking exchanged pleasantries.

“Carrie and I were schoolmates as children and it was she who recruited me and many of my classmates from the streets of New Haven into her mother’s regiment,” the young man said brightly.

Alathea smiled as she took his elbow and turned him gently, as if he were a toy sailboat on a pond.

“Do you see that man standing across the room watching us? He is an Eli, too. I’m sure you and he will discover much in common to talk about.”

She gave Stocking a little shove in the right direction and he went where he was told. She then turned her attention upon Carrie.

“Step out into the light and let me see you,” she said.

Carrie took a cautious step and then lurched forward and threw herself into Alathea’s arms, sobbing. The big room did not notice.

“What ever is the matter, child?” Alathea asked, drawing Carrie away and looking into her eyes.

“All has ended in failure,” Carrie cried. “And I am back at Rose Hill, where every minute is endless, to say nothing of the hours and days.”

“What about school?”

“Miss Averill was not what she claimed. Despite her promises, only two other students ever arrived, and she was not inclined to teach us anything of any use. I wrote to Mrs. Draper and she told me that this is a common scandal for educating girls. They charge enough to seem legitimate, but they are not. All they do is provide meals and a bed and a place to read. Eventually, of course, they are discovered and put out of business. Why is it that they don’t treat boys so poorly?”

“How long have you been back in Waterbury?”

“A week.”

“How have we not noticed you?”

“I’ve stayed in my room, I am ashamed to say. I painted a canvas of your house again and as I did so I thought of our conversation in your kitchen and envied the warmth within your walls. And I rode out very late at night so you would not know.”

“Why did you not come visit us, Carrie?”

She had regained her composure and now looked alertly around the hall, as if for spies.

“I have been forbidden. I had a terrible row with my father when I got back and another last night. My mother was involved, too. That is why he’s not here this evening.”

Carrie leaned forward to say into Alathea’s ear:

“He struck me last night.”

Alathea staggered and pulled away, and then took Carrie’s hand and led her to a side door in the big building. They went through it and stepped out into the bracing night air. The sounds from inside were muffled enough so they could also hear the creaking of carriages and shifting of horses standing in the drive.

“Tell me,” Alathea said.

“Across the face with an open hand,” Carrie continued. “It didn’t leave a terrible mark, but it’s why I’ve sought the shadows tonight. He was drinking heavily, as he does from time to time, maybe as a protest to this great bloated event.” She swept an arm back toward the hall. “And in truth I could not blame him for that. But when he drinks, there is a pattern. Without fail, he speaks of his hard work—no one has ever worked harder—and great successes, and of his making something out of nothing while others are born with everything given to them. If my mother is present, he damns her excesses, and if I am present, he resents my birth and my being, and that there will be no one to carry on his name or his affairs. And then last night he said I needed working, although I did not know what that meant, and that I had failed even in school, and that women are only good for one thing—that’s when he came at me and struck me. After that he set off for New York.”

The two women, one in a red gown, the other in mauve, shivered together in the dark as Thanksgiving at last began to draw down.

“I cannot stay at Rose Hill,” Carrie said in an echo of her summer lament. “But there is no place for me to go. Will you help me find one?”

“We will find something together,” said my wife. “But we will have to be wary. Your father is a dangerous man, and danger must be respected.”

They went back through the door and rejoined the ball. No one but I, and possibly my new friend, young Stocking, ever noticed that they had been gone.

“Carrie” Has a Cover

I’m still not sure about a publication date for “Carrie Welton,” but the novel now has a cover that I’d like to share:

Carrie Welton cover

The back-cover blurb will give some idea of the eventful life I’ve imagined for Carrie, both in Waterbury and beyond. As I noted earlier, there is virtually no record of her doings in the period between her late girlhood and her fateful trip to the Rockies at the age of 42. In Anderson’s great 1895 history of Waterbury, there is this: “Miss Welton had much personal beauty, was tall, erect, and of fine carriage and striking personality.” That’s a pretty spare frame on which to hang a novel, but I thought it would be fun, and a challenge, to fill in Carrie’s unknown years with my own ideas about where she might have gone, who she might have met, the adventures she might have had – and the heartache she might have suffered.

My Date with Carrie Welton

A little bit about the making of my soon-to-be-published novel, Carrie Welton.

Anyone who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, as I did, is familiar with Carrie Welton’s name, mainly because of the presence of a large drinking fountain for horses, humans, birds and even cats and dogs (topped by a bronze statue of her beloved stallion, Knight) located at the east end of the Waterbury Green. Carrie left the money for that fountain in her will, and it stands today as a lasting testament to her good name and her love for animals (and possibly her dislike for her own father, who was said to have been kicked to death by Knight). So, yes, indeed, Carrie Welton, the subject of my soon-to-be-published novel, was a real person – and a real enigma. If you want to look hard enough, you can find a few surviving paragraphs regarding her early life, along with several hints at her intriguing personality. In contrast, much was written about her foolish death while climbing in the Rocky Mountains and, later, even more was reported about the disposition of her will, which was vigorously contested by family members.

But what about all those in-between years?

My aim in Carrie Welton has been to imagine – to completely make up – her life during the

CarolineWelton(Hi-Res)

There are only two known images of Carrie Welton – one very fragile old photograph and this gorgeous portrait, by Abraham Archibald Anderson, which hangs in Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum. 

25 or so years between her mid-teenage years and her death. The story is a blend of fact and fiction. The life I have given Carrie in Waterbury, New York, Boston, Saratoga Springs, the White Mountains and elsewhere – her words and actions – comes from my imagination rather than the written record. Some of the people I have put into her life, such as her own family members and the Kingsburys across the street, are based on real people, but the words they speak and the specific actions I ascribe to them are made up, or, as they say in Hollywood, dramatized. The same goes for the events in the book. Some, such as Jane Welton’s glorious Thanksgiving Ball at Rose Hill in Waterbury, are pure fiction; others, such as the cataclysmic Barnum Museum fire in Manhattan that I have Carrie witnessing, really did happen. I even took some actual events and twisted them to my purposes. Anderson’s portrait of Carrie, for instance, is real but it was painted after she died, not, as I have it, from life. I guess I was a bit like a chef rummaging through ingredients and existing recipes but mostly his own imagination to come up with something original and appetizing.

How did it turn out? You can decide for yourself when Carrie Welton is published in April.

 

Mind the Gap

age differenceHe thought the six years between his age and his wife’s would be nothing to worry about. Then he turned 65.

When my wife and I were married 31 years ago, I gave little or no thought to the difference in our ages. I was 34, she was 28. Six years. No big deal. I had beef bouillon cubes in my bachelor’s pantry that were older than that.

I wasn’t really 34 anyway – not unless you wanted to actually count the years forward from the day of my birth. In every other respect – my questionable career track, spotty sense of responsibility, lagging social maturity, failure to send thank-you notes, even my retreat into a “Bullwinkle” voice during times of stress – I was comfortably still in my callow mid-20s, if not considerably younger.

For years, this “slow to grow” tendency had been a conspicuous part of my make-up. My first serious girlfriend had been gravely disappointed to find that her new beau, purportedly 19, was in many important respects more like a precocious but quite frightened 11-year-old, and one not nearly as cute as Tom Hanks was in Big. A bit later, I still recall the day when, at age 25, I was seated with friends in a Boston restaurant and was struck with the realization that I was now old enough, mature enough, truly interested enough, to get the most out of a college education. Unfortunately, I had graduated three years earlier with little distinction and many regrets. And it wasn’t until I was 28 or 29 that I at last began to enjoy the many pleasures of adult interaction, of conversation rather than banter, of dining with wine, and of relationships that no longer took a back seat to meaningless midseason baseball games.

But by 1984, as a newly married man, I thought “slow to grow” would serve me remarkably well. It would render the gap between my age and my wife’s irrelevant. For further encouragement, I needed only to look at the 14 years that had stretched out between my own mother and father – he a gentleman of late Victorian refinements, she a Sinatra-adoring bobbysoxer, who together had managed 57 years of high-road happiness. I had no doubt that my bride and I could build a similar bridge of love and mutual understanding between us.

Of course, there were certain cultural gaps that had to be attended to right away. For one thing, my wife and I were demonstrably from different generations. Someone born in 1950, as I was, could not escape the feeling that someone born in 1956, as she was, had simply missed out on so much, good and bad, that had informed the mid-20th century. “You have no idea what a grim slap in the face Sputnik was for all of us,” I remember saying to her at one point. “And you were far too young to know the heartache, the actual pain in the chest, of seeing the NBC peacock unfurl its feathers in black and white.”

She of course took a different view. “I picture you sitting in your college dorm room, hair down to here, listening to Black Sabbath at top volume, hoisting a box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers, and I just want to rush in with a handful of wipes and intervene,” she said to me more than once. More than a hundred times, actually.

So we made peace. I granted her the apparently very real pleasures of The Brady Bunch and “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,” she gave me my Kukla, Fran & Ollie and disturbing Conelrad flashbacks, and we crested the ensuing years together, through the upbringing of three children and the rise and fall of cats and dogs, college bills, car accidents, cash-flow crises and ill advised permanents. Smooth sailing all the way – or at least smooth enough.

And then 65 happened. It’s not like it was a surprise, of course. Anyone who knew how to count could see it coming. The thing is, only a year earlier, 64 had been so warm and fuzzy, what with everyone calling up and singing, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?” and making good-natured “One more year till Medicare” comments. But 65 was decidedly different. Sharper. Harsher. Less friendly. It was as if I’d stepped from a giddy, skylarking altitude up to one where the breathing was actually difficult and a little painful. There are no bouncy McCartney songs about turning 65. The Medicare card came in the mail. My wife remained in her 50s. The gap, like a long dormant movie creature, began to stir.

Its most evident manifestation came in the course of our daily routines. While my wife continued to commute to her job every day and work very hard (oh, and supply medical benefits), I had left my day-to-day job for the endless vagaries of a freelance writer’s existence. At breakfast every morning, she was dressed for work while I was barely dressed, and her “What are you doing today?” felt as sharp as a poke in the eye with a piece of toast. I felt so insubstantial, so retired and out to pasture, or at least headed toward the pasture gate. But I was 65! I was entitled, wasn’t I? I wanted to say, “Just wait six years and see how you feel about things,” but I didn’t. Then one morning I tried what seemed to me a more persuasive approach. “Back in 1972, when I was already in the workforce full-time,” I said, pausing meaningfully, “you were still a sophomore in high school, making gum-wrapper chains.” The connection I’d hoped to make there was not at all successful. My words hung briefly in a shaft of morning sunlight and then fell and shattered noisily on the kitchen floor as my wife, choosing not to comment, got up to leave for work.

The worrisome gap now arises in other ways as well. I am, for instance, increasingly conscious of “keeping up” when we go out hiking or dancing or even when we stay in and try to re-create the will-o’-the-wisp mood of a Cialis commercial. I don’t say anything, of course, it’s not a big deal, but close observation might reveal the beginnings of a grim set to my jaw that hasn’t always been there. I’ve noticed minor but actively gapping differences, too, in sleep patterns, food preferences and restrictions and health complaints. In a possibly related matter, our arguments don’t seem to have the power and conviction they once had.

These are all things to be chewed over in the course of what Kipling termed marriage’s “long conversation.” Where necessary, of course, any serious differences will be dealt with and overcome, while unserious ones will be chuckled away as in the end of a “Honeymooners” episode. Even so, I will be very happy, delighted even, when my dear wife turns 60 this spring. I will be 66 only days after, it’s true, but at least we’ll be playing once again in the same ballpark decade-wise. We’ll be in our sixties together. Here’s hoping the gap begins to recede again at that point, at least until I hit 70 and she’ll be wanting needing and feeding at dear old 64.

Honey This and Honey That

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, here’s another from the vault:

Right up until the moment it began to happen, I never thought I’d end up calling anyone “honey”—or, for that matter, being called “honey” by anyone. Although I secretly craved the affection such a nickname spoke of, I just never thought of myself as the “honey” type. The word smacked of quiet and complacency, of His and Hers towels and mild sitcom days and nights. It wasn’t me.

Nevertheless, here I am now, married just over a year, honeying and being honeyed at a rate that would leave even Rob and Laura Petrie of the old “Dick Van Dyke Show” struck dumb with wonder. Indeed, my immersion in the charms of “honey” has been so thorough that I’m today prepared to declare it a remarkable word, clearly the champion of all the terms of endearment.

honeyFirst in its favor, “honey” is a pleasant and mellifluous word to mouth; with just a little practice it can be made to spring forward naturally on the tongue as a ready ally in the maintenance of domestic peace. (On the other hand, it can just as easily be withheld, its sudden and very noticeable absence having an effect more withering than a blow to the head with a rolling pin.) Also to its credit, “honey” is an elastic word, as fluid as the substance it names in nature. In conversation it can be used lovingly, imploringly, ironically and soothingly. When used sweetly, it is a word that can be exchanged by two people in a public place without arousing undue attention.

The other classic endearments are not so versatile, I think. “Dear” seems too curt and patronizing, with an enormous potential for sarcasm. “Darling” is theatrical, not suited for use ten times a day, except by Bette Davis or someone of comparable self-possession. “Sweetheart” is lovely but Victorian, redolent of romance on a bicycle built for two. “Sweetie” seems to me not very well suited to the throes of passion, let’s say.

Still, any of these classics is greatly preferable to many of the other reputedly popular pet names people apparently deploy. For instance, would anyone really wish to be called “duckywucky” is public, or even in private? Do people truly harbor a desire to be called “lamb’s lettuce”? Is there a love so deep and sure that it can survive repeated whisperings of “poopeedoodle” or “snugglepups”? Probably not, you’ll say, and yet all these endearments have earned a place in The American Thesaurus of Slang—along with cud, fiddledeflumps, izzum-wizzum, nozzle-nozzle, oodlum, ooky and scores of improbable others.

It seems that lovers have always been willing to call one another virtually anything in the name of love. The names arise from a broad range of sources, of course, but for some reason many are evocative of the larder. Lambchop, dumpling, muffin and pumpkin lead this grocery list, but there’s plenty for dessert, too, with cupcake, sugar, puddin’ and various kinds of pie on the menu, not to mention all the possible combinations (sugar dumplin’, cutie pie, etc.).

In addition to these standard offerings, most of us probably know of people who’ve dizzily struck their own course in the realm of intimacies. I know a husband and wife who called each other “honey bunny” (she) and “funny bunny” (he). I’ve also heard tell of a “cookie face,” a “stud mobile” and a “jerk face” (this last entry opening up a whole new world of offensive endearment.

As I recollect, it was my wife who dropped the first casual “honey” into an otherwise unremarkable sentence, but it was I who took the new name in stride and ran with it. There was a sweetness and a naturalness to it, and when the first opportunity presented itself, there was no hesitation on my part.

So now it’s honey-this and honey-that all day long. If marriage can occasionally dissolve into periods of errands and logistics and favors, the “honey” reminds each partner of the deeper resonances afoot. In its way, “honey” is the Pavlovain pleasure bar of marriage. We tap it repeatedly and we are rewarded beyond measure.