Monday, June 18, 2007

9 foot tall when you're 4-foot-5

"Gossamer" is an all-too-underutilised word in the modern English lexicon.

On the train this morning, I found myself listening to "Just One of Those Things," by Nat "King" Cole, in which he suggests taking "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings."

Personally, I would prefer some good, sturdy wings for a trip to the moon, along with a not-so-gossamer space suit. But I suppose "a trip to the moon in a quality-assured spacecraft with a few extra tanks of air, just in case," would have been a bit clunky in the verse scheme. And, of course, then he would have been forced to leave out the word "gossamer."

I have decided that I want to work "gossamer" into my lexicon, similar to the way I have been trying to work in "stud duck." The problem is, these aren't words and phrases that are likely to fit perfectly in my normal stream of conversation. I have to create places for them and then it feels weird and forced. Like when I try to wink.

Cool guys wink. It's got a sort of old-word charm, does winking*. But when I make an attempt, it comes off as really creepy (case in point the last six seconds of this video).

I think about these things because I feel the need to create my personality. I suppose we all do that to some extent, but I tend to want to mimic people whom I am nothing like. I am caught between wanting to be a less-buffoonish version of Bertie Wooster and a skinnier hybrid version of my both grandfathers.

Both my grandfathers are from West Texas, but are unique characters in and of themselves (Microsoft Word tells me "in and of themselves" is bad grammar, but I can't think of how else to write this). If Papa, my paternal grandfather, were a fictional character, a literary agent would make me rewrite him because of his strange mix of West Texas and World War II/hipster slang. He'll call people "hoss," "stud," 'stud duck," "cat," "man," and "Jackson."

Well, I'm pretty sure I've heard him say "Jackson." It's possible that I am confusing him for Phil Harris, the jazz musician who most famously voiced Baloo the Bear in "Jungle Book." Before "Jungle Book," Harris was band director for Jack Benny's radio show (Jack Benny?! Cripes, there's an ancient reference. Perhaps in my next post I'll yammer on about the Nicholas Brothers**). On the show, Harris would often greet Benny by shouting "Hiya, Jackson!"

Papa has a similar voice to Harris. And when I was a boy, I had a dream that Papa and I were laughing and dancing in his living room to "The Bare Necessities." The dream was so vivid and had such a profound effect on me that it rests precariously on the verge of being remembered as an actual event. The only thing keeping that memory out of the "things that actually happened" memories box is the fact that I have at no other time in my life seen Papa move that much.

Perhaps my dad (who occasionally reads this blog) can confirm whether Papa calls people "Jackson." Of course, my dad's memory is just as bad as mine, so if he disagrees with me I won't believe him. If my brother and I were to suddenly stop calling him "dad," my father would soon be confused by these two young men who are always asking him for money.

Other things I'm certain I have heard Papa say are "love a duck," and "I'm just Jake." There are a few other phrases that aren't coming to me at the moment, all of which I have unsuccessfully tried to work into my lexicon at one point. The only identifiable character traits that I have from Papa are that we are both unnecessarily moody and keen to stubbornly ignore good advice.

Grumpiness seems to be the key character trait I inherited from my maternal grandfather, as well. Breezy, as he is known, is not above character creating. There's a great picture of him as a young man smoking a pipe, and he readily admits that he only smoked because he thought it looked cool. He has since modelled himself somewhat after John Wayne, but, unlike me, he is successful in character creating.

If you go to Hollywood and look at all the celebrities' names and footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, you will see that John Wayne had shockingly tiny feet. He was probably, in fact, a rather smallish man, and my grandfather could have kicked his ass. Instead, I like to think of my grandfather as a sort of Stone Cold Steve Austin who doesn't drink or swear and who's really good at math (and this is the point where Anthony gives me shit for my man crush on Stone Cold).

One of my favourite books is Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," which I like for the same reason that a lot of people dislike it, in that it is a bit ridiculous in its machismo -- this good-looking roguish make-it-up-as-you-go, one-of-the-guys soldier who escapes death, is loved by women, plays billiards with counts and always gets it right. Whatever, bitches. It was Hemingway's book and if he wanted to write it that way, it was damn well his prerogative and it made him so great that they put his face on coffee mugs. Either way, when I read that book, I always put Breezy in as the main character.

I mimic Breezy most in my storytelling. If I tell a story to you in person, I physically hold myself like my grandfather. As my writing style develops, I find myself trying to mimic his use of detail.

Here's an audio clip of Breezy telling a story. If you can understand his Texas accent, you'll note that he provides a certain attention to detail in his storytelling. He gives the names of towns and people, tells whether a person is right- or left-handed, describes landscapes, gives the prices of various items and on and on. This particular story doesn't show it, but what's great about Breezy's style is what he leaves out.

For example, he will tell you a story about a car breaking down. He will tell you the make and model of the car, provide a summary of the car's overall performance, explain the exact circumstances under which the car broke down, what the day was like when it happened, where he was and why he had chosen that particular route, what exactly was wrong with the car, how long it took to get it to a garage, and on and on. Then, suddenly, the story will become streamlined:

"...and this old boy says to me, 'Mr. Cox, that's gonna be $10.'
And I say, 'Nah. That's too much.'
Well, we had a little talk about it and he decided he was only goin' to charge me $5."

Eh? Something really important is missing in there. This is Texas. The mechanic's got my grandfather over a barrel because he's the only garage for 100 miles. They have "a little talk." Suddenly the mechanic drops the price. What happened?

The omission of detail amid so much detail makes it a brilliant story, because it forces the listener to create their own explanation of what "a little talk" means. Maybe the two sat and haggled for 45 minutes; maybe the mechanic simply felt like being a nice guy; maybe my grandfather kicked that mechanic's ass (my preferred version). Either way, my grandfather has brilliantly told a story by forcing me to tell the story for him.

"Gossamer," though, is not a word that would show up in that story. It wouldn't even really fit my Papa's style, who I think is influenced by his years working in newspapers and public relations. Newsmen of the generation before mine are hardwired to treat adjectives as weight -- a story moves best when it doesn't carry them. On the rare occasion that Papa feels like telling a story, it can usually fit comfortably on a 3x5 card in 12-point font.

So, I am left to try to create space for "gossamer" in places where it doesn't quite fit. This seems to be my style -- a stumbling, incongruous amalgam of every little thing I know laid out in story form.

Uhm, was there a point to this post?

*I can't work "gossamer" or "stud duck" into my vocabulary, but strangely I have no trouble structuring a sentence like Jim Ross.

**They were fucking brilliant, by the way. That clip also features the ultra-brilliant Cab Calloway. It really speaks to the chasmic evil of racism that these guys weren't just overlooked but aggressively refused the audience they deserved -- 64 years later, that sequence retains a "holy shit" quality (extending from the ECW days; when a wrestler performs a particularly amazing feat, the audience chant: "Holy shit! Holy shit!").


mo** said...

I was going to comment on your grandfathers golf story, and then I realized I already had, a couple years ago...I've been reading this blog for a long time are one hell of a stud duck...
how the hell are you supposed to use that anyway? are you talking about hunting actual ducks, does it refer to studly males in general? I like ducks, especially orange duck at a chinese buffet...

Lucy said...

Dude. My grandfather's name is Papa too. Think we're related?

Chris Cope said...

Lucy - I thought you had disappeared from the blog world. And yes, we are related. You're my sister. Ever since the whaling accident your memory has been shit.

Unknown said...

Chris, I've been meaning to note, I like the new profile picture you've got. You've got that sleepy, "I had too many pints last night but slept off the hangover" look to you. Is nice!

Lucy said...

I am the resurrection, bro. Hey, family lends family money, right?

Chris Cope said...

Yes, family does lend family money. Please send me £100.

kari said...

vince vaughn always has a cool wink that he does in damn near every movie.

i wink and it appears i have a tic.

heatherfeather said...

my mom says "lord love a duck" all the time. i say it periodically without realizing.