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The Shipwreck Rose: Sunday Edition

Wed, 09/21/2022 - 12:04

The air is strangely calm around the house with my daughter away at boarding school. Great gulfs of silence have opened up; her little brother, Teddy, soon to turn 13, has reached the stage of adolescence in which a boy disappears up the stairs on a lazy Sunday morning to increase the distance between himself and his mom, so he can pursue his Discord chats with his pack of buddies online without her looking over his shoulder or objecting to the bad language. I never heard him use a four-letter word before approximately July.

Teddy and I have our meals together like an old married couple. When he’s in the mood to talk, his conversation is highly entertaining, but — like many soon-to-be-teenagers — he often would rather not speak. So he eats his reheated eggplant Parmigiana at the Sunday lunchtime table while I rattle along with remarks on random subjects that have only a middling chance of sparking his interest.

For example: Our eggplant Parmigiana is left over from last night, so I launch into the subject of restaurant doggie bags. No one says “doggie bag” anymore. I ask Teddy what “doggie bag” means, just to see if his generation recognizes the term, and he hazards a guess: “Carry-on luggage for taking your pet on an airplane?” I am old enough to remember when restaurants brought you doggie bags with illustrations of poodles or German shepherds on them, printed with phrases like “Bones for Bowser.”

(I interrupt this column here to say that — broadcasting to you as a self-appointed armchair expert on trends in both written and spoken English, and I do wish a major publishing house would reach out and hire me as a writer on writing and save me from the fate of having to host an epic yard sale in order to fund my daughter’s collection of designer hoodies, and, yes, I am throwing a hint right now to those one or two “Shipwreck Rose” readers who are in the employ of The New York Times Corp. — I have a theory that the phrase “doggie bag” began to die out around the time pooper-scooper laws were enacted in American cities and the words “dog” and “bag” became subtly associated with rather more unsavory substances than leftover strip steak. The end of the restaurant doggy bag, IMHO, began in 1978, when Mayor Ed Koch convinced the State Legislature to enact a “pooper-scooper law” in New York City to handle the crisis in what was euphemistically called “doo” or “dirt.” Prove me wrong!)

Teddy isn’t eating his Parmigiana, because he had three vaccinations in one go this week, and is feeling — as the British used to say — a bit punk. In the afternoon, he disappears into his bedroom and I turn on the television so I can watch “the Queue” in London snake its way along the banks of the Thames, into the Hall of Westminster, and past the queen’s catafalque on the BBC livestream as I organize the horrible cabinet in which we keep our computer doodads, tangle of mystery cables, and electronics chargers that no longer pair with any known device.

Who thought we’d have an opportunity to use the word “catafalque” in 2022? “Catafalque” is very Victorian and very 2022. (On this catafalque — this pyre, this funeral bier — lies the body of print journalism, lies the body of American democracy, lies the body of the extinct white rhinoceros.) Also on my imaginary list of trendy words of the year — the list I would compile if someone at a major publishing firm would only hire me so I don’t have to move into the barn for the summer so I can rent out my house so I can afford to keep my children in surf lessons — I nominate the phrase “out of pocket.” Everyone is saying “out of pocket” right now.

“Out of pocket” is one of those niggles of office jargon that has spread like a wine stain across the culture, but everyone is using it to mean something different. Perhaps you are still using “out of pocket” to mean paying with your own money, rather than paying on the company’s dime — in a corporate context? You can see how that meaning might be stretched to cover, for example, a sense that the spendy businessperson in question was off the clock: Recently, several correspondents used “out of pocket” in emails to mean something like “away from my desk,” or “off duty.” But then I started to hear “out of pocket” being used to mean “off the hook” or “off the rails.” My daughter actually used “outta pocket” like that in a text from boarding school. Out of control. Outta pocket! Wild!

At 5 p.m., Teddy is dispatched to his dad’s house because I’m taking an ambulance-driving class in Yaphank. It’s been too many years since I’ve had to be a good student and concentrate on the lesson and the lecturer, and I am sleepy and a bit bored, so I devise a private game to keep myself entertained in the classroom: Instead of taking ballpoint-pen notes on safe following distance and the different types of braking systems — hydraulic brakes, air brakes, electronic brakes — I observe my classmates sitting in a horseshoe of desks and jot down one thing that is irksome or unpleasant about them — about these kind strangers — and then one thing that seems appealing or laudable. (It’s a naughty game and it’s also a wholesome moral Sunday exercise in challenging my own over-judgmental nature.) Opposite me is a lady who has removed her sandals and is massaging her bare feet under her desk; that’s the negative. On the positive side, she is quite stylish. (Fit check! Her fit is good. “Fit” is teenager slang for outfit.) Next to her is a young man who keeps nervously picking his face; on the other hand, he knows all the answers when the teacher talks about emergency medical response codes, alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta.

The fire-academy instructor lets us out of class early and I drive home in time to watch a classic movie on TCM before the day ends. I am attempting to interest Teddy in the golden age of Hollywood, specifically, film noir and whodunnits, which he seems inclined to like. Teddy is a near-genius at predicting plot twists and guessing the murderer. It’s a gift. We watch Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” while eating hamburger soup prepared from a recipe I clipped out of the Sunday Daily News, which I subscribe to, $25.74 for 26 weeks of Sunday papers, from a sense of nostalgia, having once read it each morning on the subway to work in a Midtown Manhattan office building — on this catafalque lies the Midtown Manhattan office building — and because I wishfully imagine my $25.74 will help delay the demise of print journalism. The actor Robert Walker, who has a dimpled chin and plays the deranged mama’s boy, Bruno, in “Strangers on a Train,” strangles a girl in bottle eyeglasses at a carnival, and we both gasp out loud.

“That was savage!” Teddy says, using another 2022 word of the year, “savage.” Great word. (Up there with “drip,” which emerged in the Trumpian year of 2018 to mean sartorial swagger, dripping in diamonds, dripping in gold.) It really was savage.


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