Archive for the ‘Charles Layton’ Category

The Milky Way. Photo from the Internet


Re-post from 2012.  Charles Layton was a member of the Blogfinger staff when he wrote this marvelous piece. Charles now lives in Philadelphia.  He is a professional editor from the Philadelphia Inquirer, now retired.


By Charles Layton

A few years ago we lived for three weeks in Nicaragua, in a house at the edge of a small, very remote fishing village called Casares. It was a spectacular place. Instead of shooshing and murmuring, as they mostly do in Ocean Grove, the waves on that shore towered and crashed and sucked and splattered and spat. They were never subdued.

From our porch, looking out on the Pacific Ocean, we watched pelicans dive bombing for fish. Each afternoon huge flocks – a hundred or more at a time – would fly right past us, headed for their nesting grounds.

But even better was the sky at night. After all the meager lights in that little town went dark, the sky became a light show of blazing stars and star clusters, plunging meteors, wandering planets. Sometimes, very late, when the call of nature roused me from bed, I would walk out on the patio alone and stare and stare at the universe, and especially at the Milky Way, wheeling above me. Stars by the thousands, unbelievably distinct and clear.

In Ocean Grove, on most nights, you can actually count the number of visible stars. Often it’s no more than a dozen. Sometimes it’s none. Living under a permanent scrim of light pollution, we forget how many stars are out there. Many of us have never actually seen the night sky in its true state – as I saw it on the coast of Nicaragua, and as our ancestors knew it.

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear jokes about the Mayan calendar coming to an end, and how that will be the destruction of the earth and all mankind. No need to do your Christmas shopping or pay your taxes now, our doom is written in the stars, har har. What idiots, those Mayans.

But really, the Mayans and all ancient peoples lived their lives in constant communion with the teeming, moving lights in the natural sky. The ancient peoples had no idea what those lights were. They noted that the lights moved in strange ways. Sometimes one could be seen to streak and fall out of the sky. Sometimes a comet would appear, ominously hovering. (What did that portent? Something important, right?) The night sky was those people’s television, fraught with drama and bad news.

The constellation Orion. The three middle stars are his belt

Religions arose to explain all those moving lights. Stories were told. People saw pictures in the sky – a lion, a crab, a hunter named Orion holding a bow in one hand and a club in the other. Because the planets moved independently of the rest of the turning firmament, the ancients associated those special lights with gods – Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.

But because the sky was so brilliant, prominent, ever-present and mysterious, ancient people studied it methodically. They built observatories and took and recorded measurements. They found that the heavenly bodies displayed repeating patterns which, when plotted, yielded information useful to hunters, farmers, nomads and sailors. Astrologers tried to discern when “the stars were right” for planting or marrying or doing business or giving birth.

The Bible says the “wise men” (men who understood signs in the sky) were guided to Bethlehem by a star. If such a beckoning star rose in the sky now, I doubt we’d even see it — unless JCP&L suffered a major blackout.

Hurricane Sandy taught us the value of electricity, and I’m happy to have the power back on; I would never want to do without it. Still, it’s not a trivial thing, our loss of that ancient awareness of the richness of the sky.



BILLIE HOLIDAY  (this song added on 4/23/21):


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A churchyard in France—the last rose of summer. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Paul Goldfinger ©


By Charles Layton, formerly Editor @Blogfinger:

Good morning, class. Today we’ll study the poetic tradition known as carpe diem, which means “seize the day.”  It’s a phrase from the Roman poet Horace, who felt that life is short and unpredictable so let’s bring and make love and party on.

The poet Robert Herrick was in this tradition when he wrote his poem “To the Virgins, to Make much of Time.”  Its most famous line is Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. But it’s not about gardening.

Here is an American popular song in the carpe diem tradition. It’s been recorded by Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Wynton Marsalis. Johnny Harman sang it on the soundtrack to the movie The Bridges of Madison County. I especially like the concluding lines:

For all we know this may only be a dream.
We come and go like the ripples in a stream.
So love me tonight tomorrow was made for some,
Tomorrow may never come for all we know.

Susannah McCorkle:


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By Charles Layton

Happy new year, word wonks.

I’m thinking that our linguistic new year’s resolution should be about clichés. I hate clichés like sin. So in 2013 I resolve to avoid them like the plague. Avoiding clichés is going to be Job One. It’s going to be a game changer. A no-brainer. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Seriously, was this past year more cliché-packed than most? Especially in politics? It seemed so.

What if, in the coming year, our politicos and their enablers and hirelings and flacks made a real effort not to talk about (to pick one example) “kicking the can down the road.” That used to be an extremely apt image – much better than the older expression, “punt.” But after you’ve heard it three or four times a day it loses its magic.

Many clichés got to be clichés because they were magical — originally. When I first heard someone talk about “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” I was in wonderment at the pure genius of that. Now, through repetition, the image has lost impact. So it goes. (I’m always reminded of the man who read Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time and complained that it was full of clichés.)

Anyway, I’m for a bipartisan agreement that we stop referring to roads with cans in them. And that we forego the use of the word “spin” in its political sense; it’s making people dizzy. Also, no more references to a “fiscal cliff.” And no more accusing people of “politics as usual.” That trite little phrase that has come to mean both anything and nothing. In fact, accusing someone of politics as usual has itself become politics as usual.

I’d also ask Christian conservatives to stop accusing secular liberals of waging a “war on Christmas” – a phrase as seasonally predictable as an Andy Williams song — and that liberals, in return, stop calling out conservatives over “the war on women.” Discarding the “war on” shorthand might allow both groups to frame their complaints more precisely.

The “war on” motif began in the 60s, to my recollection, when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. It sounded pretty cool back then – until the war on poverty got displaced by a real war in Vietnam. But in the 70s Nixon tried to have a war on cancer. And then came the war on drugs, which has had a longer run than Cats. Bush launched a war on terror. More recently, according to the New York newspapers, Mayor Bloomberg has had both a “war on guns” and a “war on soda.” In between, we’ve had various “culture wars” along with wars on crime, inflation, obesity, germs – everything except a war on wars. I read a headline the other day that said: “Putin Declares War on Orphans.” Thus does a once-vigorous metaphor become shriveled and exhausted, and thus do its users betray their linguistic laziness. “War on” has become a headline writer’s cute little joke.

Sports produces even more clichés than government and politics. It’s amazing how long baseball announcers have been yelling, “It’s outta here!”

But basic sports terms have a way of transmogrifying into political clichés. Horse race terms predominate during election campaigns, when candidates try to “break out of the pack” and become “front runners.” Sometimes they run “neck and neck” or even have a “photo finish.”

Just to shock us out of our cataleptic boredom, I would challenge the commentators to take up another sport. How about cricket? Wouldn’t it be great if they started announcing that Obama had served up a zooter to Congress, or that the New Jersey Democrats had denounced Christie for bowling grubbers and beamers. I’d buy tickets to that.

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By Charles Layton

There in the foyer by the front window stands our Christmas tree, cheerfully radiant with colored bulbs and ornaments.

We’ve accumulated these ornaments over years; many came as gifts from friends. Some have a sidelong reference to the birth of Jesus — figures of angels, stars — but most don’t. Most either signify winter in a general way (snow, icicles, a sleigh) or they’re just randomly decorative: a paper mâché apple, a pig with a festive ribbon around its neck, a little elephant painted in what looks like a Hindu decorative style.

Which is fine, because the Christmas tree tradition does flow from manifold sources. The Romans, the ancient Egyptians, the druids, the Vikings and many others saw greenery in winter as a symbol of eternal life. So they brought holly, mistletoe, a small fir tree, green palm rushes – whatever green vegetation they had – into the house around the time of the winter solstice, which is when the days start to get longer, pointing toward the return of spring, the renewal of life. Once you had a tree in the house, of course, you’d want to decorate it.

The early Roman church began to observe Jesus’s birth toward the end of the year to supplant the most popular Roman holiday, Saturnalia, and other pagan solstice celebrations. The transition wasn’t such a stretch. Saturnalia was a time of merriment, family gatherings, gift-giving and religious rites, much like what Christmas became.

Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for several days. The early Christians didn’t agree on exactly when their holiday should be observed. Various months — March, April, May, November– were suggested. There was no record of Jesus’s actual birthday. Eastern Orthodox branches celebrated it on January 7. The Armenians went with January 6. Western Christians settled on December 25. According to ChristianHistory.net, this latter choice was influenced by Origen, a Christian scholar who wanted the date to correspond to existing pagan celebrations. These included the birthday of Sol, the Roman sun god, and the birthday of Mithras, an Iranian fertility god who was especially popular with Roman soldiers.

German Christians were early to adopt the pagan custom of putting up an indoor tree, and German settlers brought that custom to America. For a long time, though, most Americans rejected it. An early governor of Massachusetts, William Bradford, considered such frivolities a “pagan mockery” of the sanctity of the holiday. In 1659 Massachusetts passed a law making it a penal offense to display ornaments at Christmas.

Another famous Puritan, the British leader Oliver Cromwell, opposed the Christmas tree on account of its“heathen tradition.”

Still, there was something so appealing about a Christmas tree that the Puritans couldn’t stamp it out. In 1846 the Christmas tree tradition gained considerable respectability in England when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing  in front of one with their children.

The first American president to put a tree in the White House was Franklin Pierce, in the 1850s. Teddy Roosevelt interrupted that tradition, not because of heathenism but rather his concern for the environment. This concern was shared by many. For example, in 1899 the Minneapolis Times stated that “The annual harvest of Christmas trees threatens to strip our forests of their fir and spruce.” The article went on to suggest that some inventor ought to come forward with a wire Christmas tree, which would not only solve the environmental problem but also would be “absolutely fire proof.”

Speaking of fire, it’s been written (probably falsely) that Martin Luther first got the idea to put lighted candles on an indoor tree – a really bad idea that endured for centuries. But it was an American who thought to replace the candles with electric lights: New Jersey’s own Thomas Edison.

The first tree at Rockefeller Center went up in 1931. It was unlit, but two years later another tree was placed there, this time with electric lights.

My wife, Mary, loves Christmas trees. She treats ours as if it were a sentient being, a family pet. As soon as we got it into the house this week she fed it a dose of her home-made Christmas tree preservative, kneeling down and pouring the liquid carefully into the tree’s metal base. The tree slurped it right up. “The poor thing is thirsty,” Mary declared, pouring in more liquid.

Here is her recipe: 12 ounces of Sprite to a gallon of water plus a dash of Clorox and an optional dash of vinegar.

Unfortunately, I happened to read that plain tap water is better for hydrating a tree than any commercial or home-made elixir. In fact, says the National Christmas Tree Association’s website, “Some commercial additives and home concoctions can actually be detrimental to a tree’s moisture retention and increase needle loss.” The NCTA especially warns against bleach.

When I read this to Mary, she pronounced herself “nonplussed.” After a moment’s thought, figuring that the NCTA must know what it’s talking about, she decided to throw out her home-made concoction. “A whole big bottle of Sprite wasted,” she said.

Change of mood: Here is a Joni Mitchell song, “River,” performed by Sarah McLachlan:

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Downtown Ocean Grove. 2003. By Paul Goldfinger

Downtown Ocean Grove, morning.  2003. By Paul Goldfinger

By Charles Layton

It was right around this time of year, 15 winters ago, that Mary and I moved to Ocean Grove. The weather was similar to now – gray, overcast skies and chilly temps. We didn’t know a soul in town except for Janet, the realtor who had sold us our house, and Dick, the contractor who was renovating it. We were living in a construction zone. While Dick tore down walls and sawed and hammered and refinished floors in one part of the house, we’d take shelter in another part. Then we and Dick would switch places. For a time we had no functioning kitchen.

We were both freelance writers during that period, operating out of a single, cramped home office, so we had no work colleagues other than two or three editors with whom we talked on the phone. It was a season of isolation.

Ocean Grove was much different then; it felt half-abandoned in winter. Nagle’s had closed as a pharmacy and hadn’t yet reopened as a restaurant. The Starving Artist was also closed during the dead of winter. There was no Pizza Shoppe on Main, no Devil’s Food, no Bia, no Seagrass.

Asbury was in ruins. Nothing was open on the boardwalk, it was a slum. The Cookman Avenue renaissance hadn’t happened yet. The housing renaissance had barely begun. Except for a gay bar or two, there was almost nothing commercial anywhere near the ocean in Asbury, unless you counted the crack trade. I remember seeing grafitti on a wall that read, “Asbury Park: Where Debris Meets the Sea.”

Ocean Grove was somewhat blighted. On any given block you might see a derelict house. A huge corner house on our block was empty and in apparent danger of collapse. (Then two guys from New York bought it and turned it into a showplace.)

What always lifted my spirits during that first winter was a trip to The Daily Grind, a tiny coffee shop with a few chairs and about three extremely small, cramped tables. It was on Main Avenue in the small room that’s off to the right-hand side of what’s now The Barbaric Bean.

The Daily Grind was a refuge. The woman who ran it turned out wonderful scones – as good as I’ve ever eaten. She would haul out big pans of them from her little kitchen. She baked muffins, too. She always had a pot of chili on the counter, and one or two pots of soup. All of it was delicious. She was open seven days a week, except maybe for Christmas day. It was the coziest little joint I’ve ever seen, the ideal place to drop into on a cold, raw day.

Of course I prefer today’s version of Ocean Grove, with all its activities and amenities. There’s no comparison. But bleak gray days like we’re having now always remind me of that first winter here, when I would squeeze up to one of those little round tables in The Grind, read the letters to the editor in The Coaster, drink my coffee and spoon down a hot bowl of chili. Sheltered and snug as a clam.

MUSIC by Nat King Cole:

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Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland

Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland

By Charles Layton

Recently, in passing, I mentioned the word malarkey, which Joe Biden had used in a debate. Last week I ran across the word again, this time in a political op-ed piece — further evidence that this sprightly little expression has lately, like a sperm, wiggled its way into our national intercourse.

My father, who had Scotch-Irish roots, used to say malarkey quite often, and also another, similar word, blarney, which he pronounced with three syllables: buh-LAR-nee. Blarney and Malarkey both mean the same thing: misleading talk or nonsense. Baloney, if you will.

The rock musician Mark Knopfler partnered the two terms in the lyric of his 2009 song “Cleaning My Gun” —

Blarney and Malarkey, they’re a devious firm / They’ll take you to the cleaners or let you burn …

The word blarney comes from Blarney Castle and its famous “blarney stone.” This stone, set in the castle’s wall, is said to invest a person who kisses it with the “gift of gab.”

According to one account, the present meaning of blarney dates from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who was attempting to wrest control of Irish lands from their feudalist owners, one of whom was Cormac MacCarthy, the lord of Blarney Castle. In an effort to negotiate away as little as possible to the crown, he used elaborate evasions and stalling tactics. One day, in frustration, Elizabeth is said to have screamed, “This is all blarney! What he says he never means.”

The source of malarkey is more obscure. It seems not to be of Irish origin at all, although it sounds like it, and it probably does derive somehow from the Irish-American surname Malarkey.

Cartoonist and word-slinger Tad Dorgan

Cartoonist and word-slinger Tad Dorgan

 According to the website World Wide Words, malarkey was first used in print in 1922 by the American cartoonist Tad Dorgan, who also either created or helped popularize other colorful slang expressions such as “hard-boiled,” “dumbbell,” “kibitzer,” “cat’s pajamas” and “drugstore cowboy.” His obituary credits him with coining the Roaring Twenties exclamation “Twenty-three, Skiddoo!” We really should write a column about him sometime.

Malarkey was first listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1929.

Various theories of origin have been advanced – that it might derive from Madame Misharty, supposedly the name of a British fortune teller, or that it might have a connection to the Greek malakia, meaning “softness,” but both those theories are flimsy.

So we’re left with the presumption that the word did arise in connection with the surname Malarkey. Maybe someone with that name once had a reputation for being full of it. Or (my own suggestion) maybe Tad Dorgan just made it up, as he did so many other slang expressions.

Many English words do derive from personal names. “Quisling,” which means a traitor, comes from the name of Major Vidkun Quisling, who collaborated with the Nazis in Norway. “Bowdlerize,” meaning to censor a work of literature, comes from Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 excised those parts of Shakespeare which, in his wisdom, he deemed unfit to be read by women and children.

General Joe Hooker, a fighter and a lover.

General Joe Hooker, a fighter and a lover.

But one must be careful in making these name associations without good evidence. I have read more than once that the word “hooker,” meaning a prostitute, came from the shady morals of the Civil War general Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Although this has been widely reported as fact, I’ve just learned that it’s all wrong. A letter unearthed by a historian and dated c. 1845 – well before the time of Fighting Joe – says this: “If he comes by way of Norfolk he will find any number of pretty Hookers in the Brick row not far from French’s hotel. Take my advice and touch nothing in the shape of a prostitute when you come through Raleigh, for in honest truth the clap is there of luxuriant growth.”

So the claim that the word hooker was derived from the name of the Civil War general turns out to be a bunch of malarkey.

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A portrait of the author

By Charles Layton

Here is my problem: I don’t want anything for Christmas.

I don’t need clothes, I’m retired. My daily uniform is jeans and flannel shirts. My closet and attic are bursting with stuff I never wear. I put on a suit and tie about once a year – twice if it’s a really bad year.

Do I need gloves? Not really. I have two pairs.

A new parka? – got one last year, and it’s great.

How about a watch? Don’t wear one anymore. Like I said, I’m retired.

People used to give me music CDs and books at Christmas, but now I download all that to iTunes and Kindle. There’s nothing to wrap and put under a tree, unless it would be an Amazon gift certificate, which is embarrassingly unfestive.

I have all the electronics I can use. Desktop computer — check. Laptop — check. iPhone — got a new one. iPod – got one. Digital recorder — got one, seldom use it. Camera equipment – I use my wife’s. Don’t need more.

I don’t have an iPad or any other kind of tablet device, but that’s because I can’t figure out what I’d use one for, or why I’d want to carry it around.

What about some tools? I have all the tools I need. Anyway, I really don’t know how to fix anything.

You would think that having all the possessions one wants in life would be a good thing, wouldn’t you? And for most of the year it is. I am happy, I am blessed, my cup runneth over.

But come December, thanks to the commercially oppressive nature of the season, having all my earthly needs already fulfilled is awkward. Not wanting more makes me seem standoffish, alienated, uncooperative. I remember that my father used to feel something similar. “Christmas ought to be just for children,” he would say. I now think I know what he was getting at.

I stroll the malls, checking out the stores, and there’s just nothing there that appeals. If they were selling extra closet space, I would ask people to give me that.

I understand that people like to give gifts, that the impulse is natural and good, and I hate to be a Grinch, although I do recall that in the Dr. Seuss story the spirit of Christmas survived and flourished after the Grinch stole all the presents.

Here’s what I’m thinking. What if, this year, I just ask all my loved ones, instead of giving me something, to make a donation to the local food pantry or to Hurricane Sandy relief.

Would that be so awful? It’s what would really make me the happiest.

But OK, if anyone still insists on giving me something, I guess I could use some socks.

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By Charles Layton

The Blogfinger Grammarian makes no apology for being totally out of it.

He does not apologize for the fact that his fashion consciousness is about the same as it was in high school. Nor for the fact that, of all the performers at the Bamboozle music festival, the only one he’d heard of was Bon Jovi. Nor for the fact that he doesn’t know who the Kardashians are, has never once watched American Idol, and has never heard Lady Gaga sing.

He no longer follows any sports teams except the Lakewood Blueclaws, having decided that performance-enhancing drugs, money, television, childishly egotistical acting-out and pedophilia have made big-time sports unworthy of serious attention.

When the Blogfinger Grammarian passes the magazine racks at the Wegmans checkout counter, he doesn’t recognize any of the celebrities on the covers (except for Brad and Jen, whom he does kind of hope may one day get back together, although he knows they never will).

Being ignorant of so many cultural references, the Blogfinger Grammarian no longer gets half the jokes on Saturday Night Live, and so he doesn’t watch it any more. (He wishes Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd would come back, although he knows that would be a disaster.)

However, one thing that I (let’s drop the third-person affectation) do know something about is the English language, since I made my living off of it. At least I thought I knew the English language; I thought I knew words.

But now I’ve just read that the Oxford American Dictionary has announced its annual “word of the year,” and it is a word I’d never heard of. The dictionary claims that its word of the year is chosen for being “a word that has attracted interest and that embodies in some way the ethos of the year.” Well if that’s true, I must have wandered right out of the ethos and right into the anti-ethos.

Because the word of the year is – ta-daaah! – GIF.

But not GIF as a noun – that’s supposedly old-hat. What’s new and exciting, according to Oxford American, is that people are now using GIF as a verb. To GIF means to perform the act of creating a GIF. Or posting a GIF online, or something.

This is a travesty. In the first place, show of hands, how many of you know what the heck a GIF is, or what the verb “to GIF” means? If you were asked to GIF, what would you do? (It’s pronounced with a soft “g,” by the way, as in “giant.”)

I looked it up. Turns out the letters stand for Graphics Interchange Format. And a GIF is a series of images put together via computer in a short, loop-repeating sequence.

Here’s a link. Check out a few GIFs and then hit the back arrow and come on back.

Back now?

OK. Although GIFs are empty calories, they can be kind of fun. They’re all over the Internet. People share them in emails.

Still, if I’d had a vote I certainly would not have supported GIF as word of the year. Just because some Internet geeks with too much time on their hands started using it as a verb? Please.

Some of the other choices Oxford American considered but turned down seem way more appealing to me. They turned down “Super PAC,” which has the advantage that you hear and read that word constantly. It really is part of the ethos of the year 2012. So is “superstorm,” but the judges passed on that one as well.

 “Malarkey” was even a contender, because Joe Biden used it in the debate with Paul Ryan. It has been reported that moments after Biden said “That’s a bunch of malarkey” people on the Internet went wild appreciating the word, discussing its meaning, its derivation, variations on its spelling. Malarkey reportedly was mentioned on Twitter 30,000 times in one minute.

It’s a good word. A great word. Maybe not deserving to be anyone’s word of the year, but it beats the heck out of GIF.

Can I please get an amen on that?

MUSIC by Ella Fitzgerald:

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How I confronted the pickpockets in Spain

By Charles Layton

All of this recent crime news in Ocean Grove puts me in mind of an encounter I had some years ago in a subway in Madrid.

I was traveling in Spain with my wife and my daughter, and at that time small bands of teenage thieves — “wolf packs” I believe they were called — were prowling the streets of Madrid, taking advantage of the unwary, including tourists like us. The way they worked was, one of these boys would do something to distract the victim while another sneaked up from behind and snatched a purse or wallet — standard pickpocket procedure.

I must have seemed like a good mark (I have an out-to-lunch look much of the time), because two of these wolf packs targeted me in a single day. The first attempt was on a busy sidewalk, but I saw them coming and brushed them away. No hay problema. The second group made their move against me on a crowded escalator in the subway. More complicated situation.

One boy had squeezed in directly in front of me on the escalator, while another had moved in behind. I was paying no notice to either of them. Just as we all reached the top of the escalator, the boy in front stopped suddenly and blocked my way by bending over as if to pick something up off the floor. Then, from behind me, almost immediately, I felt a hand going for the wallet in my hip pocket.

Before he could remove the wallet I spun around and confronted him. He was very young, and he stood frozen, facing me there on the crowded landing. Now I was yelling at this kid, first in Spanish, which I spoke pretty well at that time, but as my anger rose, my curses turned to English.

The situation became cinematic. The boy and I were surrounded by a crowd of people. When they heard me scream the word “thief,” I could feel their sympathies gravitating my way. But, to complete this picture, the other thing you should visualize is that I had assumed a martial arts pose — slight crouch, sideways to my adversary, left foot forward, right foot back, hands raised for combat. This was something I had learned from two or three weeks of karate instruction some years previously, but I had never actually assumed that stance in anger before. (Those who know me may find this little scene hard to picture, but that’s how it was.)

The young Spanish pickpocket stood in silence, stupified, I suppose, by my near-apoplectic rage. “You’re a thief!” I was yelling. “I’ll smash you through this [expletive] floor.”

Then the kid said something I don’t think I will ever forget. In calm and perfect English, barely accented, he said, “What’s your problem?”

Maybe in karate classes more advanced than the one I took they teach you what to do when an opponent says that. But I was just speechless. And I’m not sure of this, but at that moment I think what I did was, I laughed.

MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT: This song, “Meeting Across the River” by Bruce Springsteen, is about a crime in the making. It’s all rather mysterious, but you get the impression that this scheme, whatever it is, might not work out so well.

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By Charles Layton

My grandson plays on a hockey team called the Glaciers.

I love my grandson, and I love his team (Go, Glaciers!), but why would you name a hockey team after a natural feature that symbolizes extreme slowness? Would you name a team the Snails? The Sloths? The Drying Paint? I liked the name of his previous team. It was called the Blazers.

Here in Ocean Grove we have what strikes me as another example of an ill-advised name: The Albatross Hotel. Now an albatross is a large seabird which was feared as a bad omen by sailors of old. You didn’t dare kill one; it could bring down disaster upon your entire ship and crew, as happened in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Someone plagued with bad luck was said to have “an albatross around his neck.”

One of the worst names I ever encountered was in Ecuador. Mary and I once took a flight from the national capital, Quito, to the little Amazon jungle town of Coca, and the airline we flew on was called Icaro. That name, Icaro, is the Spanish rendering of Icarus, a young man in ancient mythology whose father built him a set of wings made from feathers stuck together with wax. When Icarus took to the sky, he ignored his father’s warning and flew too close to the sun. The sun’s heat melted the wax, the wings disintegrated, and Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.

So if you owned an airline, would you name it after Icarus? I wouldn’t.

Icaro Airlines. Note the feathered wing design on the tail.

People on the American frontier had a tendency to give odd and laughable names to small towns. Tightwad, Missouri. Bug Tussle, Oklahoma. Spunky Puddle, Ohio. Possumneck, Mississippi. Hell, Michigan.

One wonders what life is like in Hell, Michigan. Is the road to Hell paved with good intentions? Are the people there Hellions? Does Hell ever freeze over? (I bet it does.) Do the residents of Hell get sick and tired of hearing the same old wisecracks? (I bet they do.)

How do town founders decide on such names? Alcohol might play a part. One thing is for sure, if Bug Tussle had ever had dreams of blossoming into a major metropolis, hosting the Olympic Games or becoming the capital of the state of Oklahoma, those dreams went right out the window as soon as it acquired its name.

Some people acquire or give themselves nicknames that are funny. The actors Slim Pickens and Rip Torn come to mind. I don’t think those pun names hurt either of their careers.

Ima Hogg, circa 1900

The amazing thing, though, is that, cruel as it seems, people actually do give their children joke names. Texas had a governor in the late 19th century named James Stephen “Big Jim” Hogg, who named his daughter Ima Hogg. Ima was still around when I was young. In fact, her name was a joke among children all across Texas. We were told that Governor Hogg had had two daughters, Ima Hogg and Ura Hogg. Only recently did I discover that Ura Hogg was fictitious.

But Ima Hogg was for real. She was a pillar of Texas society and quite wealthy after oil was discovered on her property. She became a philanthropist and a noted art collector who donated hundreds of works (Picasso, Klee, Matisse) to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. She also established and managed the Houston Symphony Orchestra. She worked for equality for women, for the advancement of African-Americans and much, much more. She was hell on wheels, and you have to wonder whether living with that name helped drive her to such heights of achievement.

Ima Hogg died in 1975, much beloved and respected as “The First Lady of Texas.”

So, as Shakespeare said, what’s in a name?

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