Name of the Game

entry_211Dangers abound for the insouciant child, but by far the most treacherous waters to navigate are those of socialization. The survival of one’s formative years is largely dependent upon the learning of arbitrary rules hatched by adults. Even so, where matters of protocol were concerned, I excelled. I rather enjoyed the code of it. I was a quiet child, detail-minded, generally thoughtful, and courteous to a fault. My single downfall, if it could be so called, was that I didn’t like to use peoples’ names.

It’s not something I had never articulated, and no one had ever commented on it to me. But in fact my entire childhood was geared toward determining how to meet my needs without using anyone’s name. These aren’t conscious decisions one comes to, but innate inclinations one happens upon in the course of self realization.

For two years I was able to get by without saying my babysitter’s name. Whenever one of the other kids asked her for something, I could simply attach a “Me too, please!” to the request, and I’d be in. My technique was transparent, and all the more compelling for the “please,” at the end. The “please” is the bane of most kids’ existence. Every book on etiquette obsesses over the necessity of the “please.” And why not? It is, after all, the most important bit. Luckily for me, that word never presented a problem. I savored it, in fact, and the word dropped from my lips like silk.

One of life’s lessons that always comes too late is that avoidance only makes the inevitable worse. I’m not sure how it happened, but something was stuck in my babysitter’s craw the day she made me learn it. I recall running into the kitchen from the heat of a summer afternoon with one of the other children. I always took particular care not to let the screen door slam shut, so thoughtful was I. “Mrs. Dutrow, can I have a glass of kool aid?” asked Mark.

“Me too, please!” I said.

My babysitter retrieved a single plastic cup from the shelf, filled it with cool sugar water, handed it to my colleague, and then regarded me cooly. “Say my name,” she said to me.

My friend took this as his cue to exit, while I stood rooted to my spot on the worn kitchen linoleum. “What?” was all I could muster. There’s nothing like running headlong into an invisible barrier that leaves you questioning your most basic assumptions. What had just happened? I ran the scene through in my head again, but I couldn’t find anything out of place. Sure, there was the tug of guilt because I knew exactly what I’d been getting away with. Yet I couldn’t believe that she would actually confront me about my disinclination to call people by their names. It seemed an outright violation, if not a cheap grab for control.

“You never say my name,” she said. “You never say anyone’s name.” And there it was, the ugly truth. She might as well have said, “You’re short and slightly cross-eyed,” but that would have been stating the obvious at least. This was different. Like that she had just laid out my secret. Fifteen other children under her daily care, and she didn’t care in the least that any one of them might have overheard.
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Social Mirror


Shit. I hadn’t seen my stepfather reach for his glass until my hand was around my own glass. I reacted in the only way I could: I froze, my arm stretched over my “Land of the Lost” Sleestak placemat. My stepfather saw me hesitate, but more than that, he’d somehow reached a deeper understanding about why I’d hesitated.

I’d never cottoned to synchrony, even as a child. It was all too obvious that uniqueness was a myth, but why cede to mimicry so easily? Particularly to such a loathsome creature as the man who sat across from me now. Our years together had taught me that relief came only as I defined myself in contrast to my stepfather, by embracing anything that might separate us. And, except for the little things–autonomic reflexes, involuntary functions, unconscious social graces–I had succeeded. I was his opposite incarnate, and had succeeded in alienating him as only an artist could. Indeed, in pissing him off, I was a craftsman. But I was young still, and not yet a master of my tools.

So it was that, in order to ensure that the social mirror would be broken, I held my arm in suspension a bit longer than necessary, watching as he went on to take a sip. But he was watching me as well, and though I withdrew my hand with great finesse, he was already onto me.

“Jeffrey, drink your milk,” he ordered. I was incredulous, and humiliated, and stared at him. I knew exactly why he was ordering me to drink, but I couldn’t believe that he would actually challenge me on such an esoteric matter. And I was not going to drink my fucking milk. Especially not now that it had become a prop in another one of his ad hoc deprogramming sessions.

My mother’s eyes flicked from one of us to the other. “Guys, what’s going on?”

“He’s being weird, again,” I answered, hoping that last word would help to establish what was obviously a contemptible pattern of behavior.

He rolled his eyes, “No, you’re the one who’s being weird.” He laid it all out for Mom. “He was going to raise his glass, but he stopped when he saw me doing it at the same time. Now he doesn’t want to drink at the same time I’m drinking.”

“It’s not just you!” I protested.

For a moment it looked like Mom was going to say something articulate and disparaging, but she couldn’t muster the energy. And in truth, there was no righting something as derailed as this situation. By that time in my life, my relationship with my stepfather was defined as a series of lessons. He remained on the lookout for some aberrant tendency of mine, at which point he would direct me, his budding avatar, toward right action.

Mom didn’t have time for character molding just then though, and retreated into the kitchen with her plate. She was efficient that way: matter resolved, and without a word.

However, now free of oversight, my stepfather was back at his latest lesson anew. “Drink your milk, Jeffrey.”

It was a campaign to exorcise me of eccentricity, and the man was clearly obsessed. He would find no rest until I was robbed of every shred of independence. “I’m done!” I said.

“Not until you finish your milk,” he said.

“Fine,” I said, and reached for my glass. At the same moment he reached for his glass, and I saw what this was all about. “What are you doing?” I asked.

Oh, but he couldn’t put words to it. His rationale wouldn’t have withstood the sheer implausibility of it, so all he said was, “Drink your milk!”

I considered my options. I couldn’t rely on any of the standard excuses to get me out of this one. “But there’s a bug in it.” “I feel sick.” “My hand is bleeding.” So I sat there, frozen, with my hand tight around my glass. The moments drew into horrible minutes, a silent showdown broken only by his periodic instruction: “Drink. Your. Milk.”

Sure I had the advantage of time on my side–eventually he would die–but I had so much more to live for, that much had become evident. So I took advantage of his advanced age, and, quick as lightning, catapulted my glass toward my face, squeezing my eyes shut against the milky splash.

Only I underestimated my stepfather. To some extent he had anticipated tomfoolery on my part, and had set himself on a hair trigger. The part of his brain that controlled restraint, therefore, was disengaged entirely, and when the milk cleared from my eyes I found myself staring across the table at my drenched stepfather, his glass, now empty, still clutched in his hand. I might have laughed if he hadn’t immediately jumped out of his chair and come at me.

By the time he had me by the scruff of the neck I was running entirely on instinct, and I found my fists clasped around his own nape in a death-grip. I was pinned under him, but not without some leverage, thanks to my quick reflexes. “Let go of me,” he said through his teeth.

Only I’d learned my lesson more quickly than he gave me credit for. “You let go,” I said.

And so it went.

A Thousand Cuts

entry_175Well before I had a firm command of language, my best friend was a sky-blue blanket called “Meemuk.” Meemuk accompanied me wherever I went, clenched in my fleshy finger lobes, and with one corner of it typically providing me with some blankety nourishment.

Other than the fact that it had a comforting scent, I don’t remember much about Meemuk now, and several old photographs provide the only corroborating proof that the item even existed. When I happened upon these photos during a holiday at home I brought them to my mother, whose nostalgic smile quickly turned to dismay. “Ugh. I could not get that thing away from you.”

“My blanket? Why would you want to?” I asked.

“Because it stunk to high heaven is why. You were obsessed with that blanket, even though it reeked, and was stained with who knows what.”

There was clearly a discrepancy between her memories of my beloved Meemuk and my own. Was she fabricating details to cover the onset of premature dementia? Of my blanket I had impressions of softness against my cheeks, and warmth, as well as that vaguely sweet smell I loved so much. These were my pure childhood images–surely she would not disabuse me of them.

“I don’t know what blanket you’re remembering, but Meemuk–you called it Meemuk–”

“I know.”

“–followed you into the dirt, and into the bathroom, and into your food. The only time I tried to take it away from you completely, you had such a fit that I eventually had to give it back to you.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Well what do you expect?”

“But I had an idea, see.” And here’s where things took a dark turn. “I decided that if you wouldn’t let me take it away, I could at least borrow it long enough to wash it. As the weeks went by I would wash it regularly, and when it came out of the dryer I would cut just a little bit off the edges with a pair of scissors.”

“You didn’t!”

“Month by month,” she continued, “the blanket got smaller and smaller. It was so gradual that you didn’t even notice the difference.”

When the shock of her dark deed wore off I asked, “How small did Meemuk get?”

She rolled her eyes, already bored with the topic. “Oh I don’t know. A little larger than a napkin, I think.”

“Great Caesar’s ghost! You cut that much off and I didn’t notice?” But the humiliation at being so oblivious was only part of the reason I was upset.

“If you noticed you never made a fuss about it. And anyway, you were growing so quickly by then that everything probably seemed like it was getting smaller.”

The world was getting smaller all the time, it’s true, but she didn’t have to help it along, and with such sinister determination. I didn’t want to know what became of the last little patch of blue, so I dropped the photo back into the shoebox.

The shoebox full of cropped and trimmed photos.

I’m surprised that I hadn’t made the connection before then. I peered at another of the photos. There I was as a child, an anonymous arm over my shoulder that met an abrupt edge before the shoulder. Where was that, and who had been standing beside me? Another adult torso ends cleanly at a neck, the slice missing the top of my head by a hair. Over time the memories fade, and mom trims history back in strips. She’s a terror with the shears.

I call to her in the kitchen. “Mom?”

“Mmm?” Smoking.

“Didn’t I used to have a brother?”

Mistake II

entry_172Lost in thought, I accidentally sprinted up eight flights of stairs this morning instead of six, passing my floor in a daze. I was thinking about the mistake I’d made when I was but a lad of eleven. Singularly well-burdened of intellect, I was, even then, wont to losing myself in contemplative spells, to the detriment of chore, courtesy, and couth. So it was that I found myself dangling from the business end of my stepfather’s clenched fist, my slackened feet leaving circular furrows in the gray mounds of his father’s ashes. One might conclude that my mistake lay in tipping his precious urn in the first place, especially as I was using it for balance as I sought the box of porn magazines in my stepfather’s den closet. But in hindsight the far greater mistake was my reaction to the fury directed at me.

In spite of my precarious position, I suddenly felt the urge to laugh. I tried to stifle it as soon as I felt it coming on, but it was like the onset of a sneeze. My field of vision contracted as time slowed, until all I could see beyond my elder’s immense white knuckles were his bulging eyes and quivering jowls. He was so consumed with emotion that it summoned in me a kind of dark joy. More! I wanted to shout. I wanted to see him combust into a plasma cloud of rage, as I shrieked with joy from the excess of it.

I tried to hang onto reality, mindful of the myriad physical repercussions that would surely befall me if I allowed myself to be swept into the throes of laughter. It seemed I had ages to imagine the gristly aftermath, but however inappropriate, I couldn’t help but to surrender to mirth. I felt the right corner of my mouth curl upward ever so delicately, in spite of my every determination not to allow it to end like this.

Reality! My stepfather’s countenance was a marvel of form yielding to function. He was anger incarnate. In a way he had transformed into something other than human. No longer was he digesting stomach contents, or pushing out fresh ear hairs, or suffering macular degeneration. At that very moment in time every process served the singular function of shaking me over his paternal remains like a ragdoll.

And yet the image of it became a cartoon taunting my mind, a vision of myself whooping like a retarded child on the Octopus ride, “Wheee! Wheee!” The laugh overtook me in a spasm, and I snorted through my nose as I averted my face. It sounded a bit like a sneeze, in a way. An awful lot like a sneeze, except for the trace smile now dooming my right cheek. Maybe he didn’t see though. From his angle maybe mine was an expression of abject horror, a grimace of fear, or of self-loathing at least. But a moment later I was choking with laughter.
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entry_171Thousands of fake lives were at stake, and I’d dropped the ball. Actually, I’d selected the wrong menu item, and as a result the jukebox uploaded the wrong telemetry tape. I was a rookie, still in training, but to my authoritarian instructors I was nothing more than a liability. My supervisor was playing terminal jockey in the pit next to me until I figured out the process. As he snatched the light pen from my hand he said, “You load the wrong tape, you compromise the mission. What if we’d been live?”

The technicians worked to reset the scenario as I searched for the right words, which hadn’t yet been invented. “I’m sorry,” I said, inviting the worst. “I thought the-”

“You made a mistake,” my supervisor interrupted. His very being seemed to exist solely to point out my erroneous state, like iron filings standing up around a magnet’s field. “You can’t make mistakes when you’re feeding the Console.”

There’s always been a flaw in my character that is triggered when people tell me things that are already apparent. It makes me want to do irrational things, and it’s as seductive as the desire to press the soft spot on a baby’s forehead with my thumbs. Come to think of it, that’s probably another flaw in my character.

In this case I merely responded to my supervisor, which was at least a highly inefficient use of our time. “It was a mistake,” I said, “so I can only try not to do it again.”

He looked confused. It was the same look he might have given to his father’s fists when they failed to pummel him one night for daring to speak his mind. Now was not the time for commentary. “No. You can’t try not to do it again, you have to not do it again.”

I didn’t waste a moment. “Well if I did something wrong again then that would be, again, a fresh mistake,” I said.

“Don’t do it,” he said.

“Well you’re assuming… See, I didn’t mean to do it to begin with. It was a mistake, so by its definition it’s something that happened when my intent was to do something else.”

He blinked at me. “You do what you’re supposed to do and don’t do anything else. No mistakes. You’ll be more aware from now on, so keep your eyes open and do it.”

“You’re missing my point,” I said. “Even if I did the exact same thing again, it would be a new mistake. Because the first time I made the mistake it was the first time I’d learned it, so the lesson was simply a naive sense of ‘don’t do it.’ But now, if I did it again, it would be after having learned about the mistake once before, so the lesson would be more about realizing how this mistake can happen in spite of all of my previous learning, and then incorporating that data into my actions going forward. You know, countermeasures.”

My supervisor slapped his palms on the table and bleated, “look, I’m not interested in a philosophical debate!”

“I was just kidding,” I said. Cherry on a sundae.

Still, it was a long while before I gained confidence in that procedure. A big part of that has to do with the way my mind works, which is incorrectly. In any given situation one may expect a fair chance of eluding blunder. It is rare, in fact, for situations even to seem matters of right or wrong. But, given the choice between making a right decision or a wrong decision, I will invariably choose in the wrong, even after I’ve backtracked to take the right path. This is partially because experiencing wrongness leaves much more of an imprint on me than any meager chemical reward for doing right. “Don’t do that again,” is hardly sufficient to guard against making a mistake.

It plays out like this: I realize that I’ve done something imperfectly, so the next time I come to that branch in the path all I can think of is the horror I felt the first time. And since that was the first time, it stands to reason that I must have relied on instinct… which would dictate that I do the opposite of what my instincts tell me to do this time. So I compensate in the opposite direction, and it all cancels itself out, and I end up making the same mistake again. It just reinforces my predisposition the next time, until I can do no right except through accident.

In fact I’m highly reliable if you look at the situation in the wrong way. My compass needle just faces South. If you know that then you can compensate and still get where you need to go. But don’t take my word for it.

Time Traveler

entry_158When I was a lad I had a watch that was five minutes behind. Setting that watch at the beginning of each school day was part of my morning ritual, followed closely by the familiar litany: key, money, watch, belt, pencil. They were essential to my peace of mind, and had to be on my person before I set out for school.

Finding myself without any one of these five things foretold some amount of additional hardship. Without the key I would be locked out of the house until my parents’ return, very late. Without money there would be no lunch. No watch meant I couldn’t tell how much longer I had to bear class without turning around in my seat toward the clock on the back wall, an act sure to draw the attention of my instructor. My belt provided not only a sense of security, but was the most efficient means of keeping my big brother’s pants on my hips. And without a pencil, my instructor–my vengeful instructor–would force me to take notes using a sharpened fingernail in fiber-board. Or so I had heard. I didn’t wish to find out.

Key, money, watch, belt, pencil. What set these few items apart as being so deserving of conscious daily attention? After all, weren’t there any number of things whose absence I would more sorely regret? But that’s the key: these were the things at the center, between mere whim and necessity. These were the five things that I desired, but only for comfort. I was never in danger of forgetting the things I didn’t need, like candy or glue balls. And I couldn’t forget the truly essential gear, like my books, my underwear, or the tiny, ivory-handled pistol I wore in them.

For the most part there was a sanctity to my routine that gave me a sense both of control and belonging. Perhaps that was the closest I ever came to realizing the notion of celestial clockwork. Maybe it’s ironic then that I grew to loathe the setting of my watch. Its unwillingness to stay where I set it seemed mocking, especially as it ran no more slowly than any of the other timepieces in my life. It was just five minutes behind, and there it stayed. I became obsessed with synchronizing it, whenever I took notice of the disparity. But by the end of a day it would be five minutes behind once more.

Looking at the matter technically, it would have been an easy matter to ascribe this to a faulty time-keeping mechanism. But the fact–no the beauty–of my watch was that it would not be ten minutes slower if I let two days lapse between settings. No, from a scientific perspective I had to concede that my watch would decelerate, upon its initial setting, until it was five minutes to the lee of the correct time, at which point it would resume normal speed. Just enough to maintain its place.

As children we cling to the things we know, little moral absolutists that we are. As such, it is clear that there is a right time and a wrong time. It’s as binary as that. Thus do we suffer any divergence from the known universe, and tattle or weep so that we might realize salvation from some greater authority. My instructor saw none of this struggle however, as I had learned early on that to be hysterical and frenzied was to be vulnerable.

I was just twelve then, but already setting my watch every six minutes or so. My state of mind was beginning to affect not only my assignments, but my well-being, and my conduct was visibly affected. By then I believed that my watch was leading me astray. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to be called mad, or worse. Try it yourself: respond to your friends consistently five minutes late, or step off the curb five minutes early. You’ll begin to see that life can take a nasty turn without any of its individual components changing. In the end it’s just a matter of timing.

My vindictive instructor ordered me to turn around, to stop looking at the clock on the back wall, and, when I failed to follow his directive, grabbed my shoulders and turned me physically. “You face forward,” he said, standing over me like a chalk dust-coated pylon. I admit that I was not man enough to bear the humiliation. When the bell rang only a minute later, and the kids piled out like apples off a tipped cart, I sat at my desk for four more minutes. Finally I was still, but that wasn’t good enough for my instructor. It’s a matter of timing, you see. By then he was shaking my shoulder and yelling in my ear, “Are you okay? Hey, can you hear me?” Then I pulled out my pistol and gave him something to yell about.

That wasn’t as long ago as you might imagine, yet things in my life have changed drastically. I’ve found much solace in a more regimented lifestyle, but I’m looking forward, in the near future, to establishing my own routines again. Once I am released. Key, money, watch, belt, pencil. License. Cigarettes. Glasses. Medicine.

As a final note I must say that I have to stifle a laugh whenever mention is made of the “time” I must serve. I’m ahead of the game is what they don’t realize. Five minutes ahead, to be precise.


entry_152I look down at the clutter of objects in my hand and worry that I’ll be caught shoplifting this time. Some might call it nonsense, being that these are, after all, my own things. But only I know why the thought is so persistent.

Fwip. Twenty years ago to the day, not much more than a wean, I gathered the courage to enter the county store alone. I found myself, finally, standing before a rack of note pads, and scanned the selection one last time to ensure that I’d grabbed the finest specimen. Fwip. As my eyes flicked from cover to cover I worked off some of my spare adolescent energy by running my notepad of choice across the inner lining of my windbreaker. Fwip. The sound it made was soothing, right up until the store’s security guard lowered his immense hand down upon my right shoulder where it clamped like a jumper cable.

“It might be a good idea if you paid for that, mmm?” he said, his other hand going to the place where his gun holster had been when he was still on the force, back before the incident.

The specific flavor of guilt I felt is one that I imagine is unique to humans. Sure, there are higher mammals who are quite capable of guilt–you haven’t seen anything if you haven’t witnessed first hand a pod of remorseful dolphins. But the brand of guilt I prefer to wallow in is the guilt of the innocent. Intent doesn’t figure into the matter–if it’s something I’m physically capable of, then I may as well be guilty.

I immediately jerked the notepad from the inside of my jacket and held it out, away from me, away from any conceivable pocket or orifice. “I’m buying it,” I said. “I was planning on buying it, I mean. I wasn’t taking it, I was just…” I made an anemic sweeping motion with my hand, but I may as well have been waving a bloody knife over an eviscerated baby. The heat of the guard’s hand fused the joints of my shoulder into a heavy unmovable mass, and I was fixed under his gimlet gaze.

But the guard suddenly unhanded me and continued his stroll down the aisle, as if the implicit condemnation hadn’t melted me into slag. “Just make sure you do then,” he said over his shoulder.

“I will,” I croaked. “I am.” Even after I paid for that notepad though, even after I’d taken it home, I regarded it with dismay. It felt stolen to me.

And ever since that day I’ve harbored a deep-seated fear of putting anything near my pockets when I’m in a store. Today I can feel the cameras on me as I make my way down the aisles, and imagine the bank of monitors in the darkened room in the back, a compound eye fixed on my nervous hands. Possibly it’s because, in a fruitless search for my shopping list, I’m now holding in my hands a pen, my Palm, my car keys, and a wadded up scrap of paper, all while trying to steer my cart around the other patrons. Steering is difficult with full hands, but I don’t really have any choice in the matter. This is what it’s come to: I can only take things out of my pockets now, and then out they must stay, forever.


entry_125“Hello there.” My stepfather would say hello to us whenever he entered the room, invariably. I quickly learned–by rote–that a response was expected. It didn’t seem so outrageous, of course. In fact it seemed a friendly enough thing to do, so I tried it myself for a while. “Hello, Mom. People? Hello. Hello, all.” It didn’t take though.

One might think that the socially ungainly youth would take great solace in such ritualized behavior, insofar as it renders the vulgar act of thinking unnecessary. But to the skeptic there are situational subtleties that social doctrine is insufficient to address, so in fact the act of greeting proved to be a lot of work for me. As I grew ever more self-conscious about these automatic, Tourette’s-like utterances–“good morning,” “bless you,” “oopsie daisies”–it occurred to me that there there were an overwhelming array of hidden factors to be aware of. Had you already said hello to someone two minutes before? Had you forgotten something in another room and merely gotten up to retrieve it, and then returned? What if you had to suddenly go to another room, and a detachment from the original room took another route to get to the same destination for another reason? Did you have to pretend? “Oh! Hello there! Ha ha. Fancy meeting you here, when, just in the other room, you were there, too…”

No, I soon discovered that the mental gymnastics required to justify this kind of greeting were untenable. Perhaps it helped my argument then that my stepfather said hello merely as a means of control–something which, for him, would indeed clarify general usage. Oh, it was obvious. It was in the way his eyes would linger on us after a greeting, waiting for the proper response in such a way as to say, “I’m now waiting for the proper response.” The rest of us would acknowledge him then–a small price to pay for a momentary semblance of amity. But if there was little he could do to coax us to greet each other (“Your brother just got home,” he might say, “so what do we say? Aren’t we going to be civil?”), we were still expected to greet him superfluously, and this required keeping track of the man. Which, after a while, I had begun to do anyway, if only so that I could be somewhere else.

It was all very taxing, to the point where I was forced to forego the act of greeting summarily, even in cases where I hadn’t seen someone for a very long time. Greeting, for me, became a loathsome pleasantry. An obsolete social trifle that I looked down upon unabashedly. This suspension of greeting was, in fact, the only viable avenue I had for balancing the scales that my stepfather had tipped so decidedly in his favor. It was a power struggle, albeit an esoteric one that the rest of my family were unlikely to fully appreciate. I was the only one doing anything about this greeting power trip, and when I started getting the rude looks from others, I wanted to say, “Hey, you want a greeting, you know exactly where to go. Because you’re not getting shit out of me.” I felt righteous.

Perhaps like all stepfathers, my stepfather eventually faded from the family picture. But even so, it took me years to get over the stigma of greeting people. To this day I’m still self-conscious about it, and I think that’s quite a legacy to leave for merely entering a room.


Before there were Infocom games we had the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Better than reading a story from beginning to end, these books allowed the reader to make decisions at key plot points that affected the storyline. It wasn’t quite immersive, but came closer than Pong. These books–many of which I still have–did nothing to quell my latent obsessive tendencies. After an initial “organic” read, I would go back to the start and methodically mark each fork, following each possibility to its end before heading back to the most previous fork. What’s past is prelude. Rainman would have been proud (albeit in a detached way).

Factory Settings

entry_32My great grandparents could speak with authority about outhouses. I once found a cracked photograph of them fawning over a new refrigerator–the kind that required a fresh supply of ice to stay cold. The device was new then, and they were proud to own one, and a side benefit of ownership was the opportunity to forge a new friendship with the friendly neighborhood iceman. He would drop by every few days or so, they told me, to deliver their ice, hefting the dripping brick up into the metal-lined compartment with a pair of oversized tongs.

In the age of talking appliances, tongs have largely fallen out of favor, and icemen sit in their retirement villages absentmindedly rubbing their club-like forearms. It takes a new generation before any change is accepted without contempt, a generation who is unaware that things used to be different. It’s the change itself that people mistrust, not the innovation that comes of it. The innovation comes because, really, that’s what we want. We just don’t want to have to change our routine to get it. So leave it to the younger set, until, little by little, the old ways are forgotten.

My great grandfather bought a modern washer for the clothes, a small concession to modernity and quiet acknowledgement of failing joints. Before that my great grandparents made do with the traditional washboard and rollers, which were fairly dangerous contraptions. Seems once you got the rollers going they didn’t much care if they were rolling the wash, or the sleeve of the shirt you were still wearing, or your careless body parts.

So there my great grandfather was, sitting down in the unfurnished basement with the new washer, not out of pride, but because he had no faith in its abilities. He would sit there in front of it from beginning to end, a wary participant in the march of progress. He watched from his chair, rocking forward and back over the concrete. Whenever the machine would begin to shudder–and it often would–he’d pull himself to his feet and hold the machine down for as long as it took for it to finish. He never adjusted any of the knobs, and would tell anyone who asked, “This is how it came from the factory, and I assume they know what they’re doing.”

For this same reason his newfangled color television displayed everything with an even green tint. It was such a disconcerting picture that my grandfather once went so far as to balance the tint correctly, an act of philanthropy purely in the interest of sanity preservation. But on a later visit he saw that that the tint had been returned faithfully to its factory-green. And there it would stay.

You have to wonder if these elder folk clung to their atavism as a conscious form of self-punishment. Maybe they liked being rustic. Maybe they knew that it was kind of cute, in a way. Sometime after my great grandfather’s death I recall a political discussion between my mother and my great grandmother. “Who are you going to vote for?” my mother asked. She’s like me that way: sometimes she asks questions she knows the answers to because it’s not the answer she’s interested in, but the telling of it. My great grandmother said, “Why I’m going to vote Republican. Because my husband voted Republican, and that’s good enough for me.” I suppose that it had never occurred to her to question the factory settings either.