Home, Strange Home

May 18, 2019


Unless you’ve lived in the same house all your life, you can’t pinpoint the moment when your place became your home. It happened while you weren’t looking.

The longer you live somewhere (excepting a war zone, I guess), the more you get attached to it — or at least you can take comfort in everyday normalcy. To be pulled away permanently is wrenching, but those attachments can anchor like a root system in an entirely different place. 

I attended my first seven school grades in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the world’s largest naval base. Many of my friends were the sons of officers — it was an all-boys school — so it was very common to have to say goodbye after Dad’s two- or three-year assignment was up and new friends rotated in. Navy brats were used to it. They moved around all the time. I was the stable one: my dad was a civilian. So it came as quite a shock when one day he announced that we were going to move. I loved my house, my street, my school, my friends, and now they were all going away. I mean, this time I was.

We moved much farther South, to Jackson, Mississippi, where my father was joining a bunch of Virginia grocery executives to roll out a regional supermarket chain. In the summer of 1962 — the midst of the Civil War centenary — Jim Crow still ruled, and there was a meanness that hadn’t been shoved in my face in the Commonwealth. We seemed to be on Mars: the atmosphere was viscid and foreign, the heat so stifling that simply mowing the lawn used up most of my juice. I hated everything. I wasn’t traumatized or clinically depressed, just good Ole Miserable. And I’d been such a happy little squirt, too. My folks pondered what to do.

I’m not sure I could have come up with such wisdom, but my parents were struck by genius. (1) My dad solemnly promised that if I would just give Jackson a chance for exactly one year and I still wanted to go back at that point, then we would. (2) They enrolled me in summer band class at my junior high school. We rented a saxophone — my choice  — and I took as many lessons as I could cram in before band started.

Action (1) gave me the reassurance of a firm deadline. I began writing my grandmother a letter every day. (She lived down the street — how idyllic had my life been, folks?) Each one counted off the days remaining until I’d be back in Norfolk. Action (2) was designed to get me something I needed achingly badly: friends. Sure enough, the commonality of band practice helped me sink the first tendrils. I met two of my lifelong besties in that rehearsal room, the oldest continual friendships I have. For years my grandma would tell people the story of my letters. She said they arrived daily for about two weeks. Then I started missing days. Then maybe once a week. A month. Then it was down to the annual birthday card. She would smile through all this because she understood the reason: I was forming a new life and sloughing off the misery. (I’m sure I hadn’t been the only one who was sad when I left Norfolk, but she handled it like an adult.)

We drove back “home” for a visit every summer for several years, and even though I was building relationships in Mississippi (shut up, there’s such a thing as a girl?), I still felt like a displaced frontiersman. But by the time some buddies and I celebrated high school graduation with a car trip to New York and stopped in Norfolk on the way up, enough life had passed to change the appearance of houses, shutter beloved mom-and-pop shops, and render my boyhood hood unfamiliar. I didn’t belong here any more. I remember noting this at the time: in only five years, “home” for me had become Jackson, Mississippi.

I lived there for 22 nonconsecutive years. Four intervening years in Athens, Georgia was time enough for it to become “home” too. But when I went back to Athens for a writers’ conference twenty years later, all I could recognize were the street names. (Turning indie-hip with the B-52s and R.E.M. transformed the place.) By that time I had become a book editor, a result of my most radical lifestyle change ever. That happened when I moved from Mississippi to New York.

Ask any progressive in a red state — they are definitely there, in each and every one — and they’ll nod when you describe the low-grade wariness you have to carry around every day. Living in an overwhelmingly reactionary society doesn’t change your mind, but it makes you mindful of your surroundings. If I still lived in Jackson and continued my independent corporate communications work with big, connected companies and agencies, I’d need to watch what I say in public. If I wanted to do business with the powers that be, I wouldn’t have to lie, but I would have to remain silent about our current president or any other president. I’d imagine it’s only a tame cousin to the way closeted gays are still made to feel, but in my own small straight way I do get it. The most immediate, and unexpected, surprise after my move up north was a sense of political and cultural exhalation. It was so relaxing to be able to abandon self-censorship. 

It’s not that everybody agrees with you, far from it. Or that injustice and prejudice don’t exist. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my undeservedly charmed life, it is this: there are rednecks everywhere.) It’s just that up here, no state-sponsored point of view makes most everybody’s heads nod like drinking ducks. I couldn’t figure out my oddball sense of calm relief in one of the world’s most frenetic cities for a long time. I think I’ve finally pegged it. Namaste.

But once again, societally I found myself on Mars. Lots of life was new again. I can amaze people in both cultures with fun facts about myself. New Yorkers: I didn’t know what a bagel was until I was 38 years old. They’re everywhere now, but they weren’t always. Mississippians: I haven’t owned an automobile for 31 years. (Now you know how old I am!) I do not have the slightest inkling what a gallon of gas costs until I top off my rental car two or three times a year.

In a strange clime, you notice little things. The accents and idioms. “Mou’ain” for “mountain,” no T. “I’m a Met fan.” Singular. “Have a goot one.” Rhymes with “soot.” That singsong recitative that is spreading nationwide: “I went to the GYM, I rode on the BIKE, I walked back HOME, I picked up the KIDS…” Standing “on line” instead of “in line.” That distinctive overloud New York sigh (usually heard while waiting “on line”) that says, I don’t like this but there’s nothing I can do about it so I shall express my displeasure to all within earshot. Yiddish words that just osmose: I’d been misusing and misspelling “macher” my whole life without realizing it, but not any more, and now I have a few other choice ones in my vocab. The overhonking of car horns. When I’m in traffic anywhere else, it seems strangely quiet; back home I even feel for the semi driver who spends all day navigating double-parkers on already-snug cross streets until he finally looses his frustration with the ole air horn. 

Did you hear that? “Back home.” 

I used to say, “On a hot day back home, it smells like dirt and pine needles. Here it smells like garbage and dog doo.” But now I say, “On a hot day down South…” I don’t know when my perspective changed. It happened when I wasn’t looking. Headed into New York on an airplane, I used to think, wow, look at all the people who live here, and there’s Central Park! Now I just think, I’m home. Many, many New Yorkers came from somewhere else, as I did. But if they managed to stick it out, they became New Yorkers themselves, and that means they found a home. Norfolk, my favorite place ever when I was a kid, is but a wisp of a memory now. (Have I just stumbled upon the dadburn meaning of life?) I’ve planted roots elsewhere. And even though the location of home may zig and zag throughout a full human span, it’s so soothing to know it when you’re there. Wherever that may be.


My home right now.


Serendipity At Pinehurst

April 26, 2013
My Aunt Ellen (c.), surrounded by Dupree dames: Regina (l.) and Diana.

My Aunt Ellen (c.), surrounded by Dupree dames: Regina (l.) and Diana.

My brother John and I, along with our brides, flew down to Seven Lakes, North Carolina last weekend to participate in the memorial for our beloved Aunt Ellen. She passed away two weeks ago, far too young, from unforeseen complications following stints in chemo for breast cancer. Her husband, our Uncle Buddy, has sort of defined the word “avuncular” all our lives (“Golf? I shoot in the low 80s.” Me: REALLY? “Yep, any hotter than that, I don’t even go out!”), but Ellen was everything to him, and we hated to have to help Buddy send her off.

The service on Saturday afternoon went fine, though my heart lurched as I saw my uncle, sitting right in front of me, just loose his shoulders and slump a little as the homilies began: he had busied himself for days by taking care of all the little details, and now there was nothing left to do but mourn. John and I had met Ellen’s grown daughter Tammy for the first time the night before. She looks and sounds exactly like her mom (they’ve even fooled Buddy once or twice on the phone), which turned out to be eerie and comforting at the same time, at least for me. The service hit Tammy the hardest (she was close enough to her mom to call her on the phone every day), and it broke our hearts to see it.

Ellen (l.), my brother Rick, and my Uncle Buddy, who looks like he's about to order a hit on somebody.

Ellen (l.), my brother Rick, and my Uncle Buddy, who looks like he’s about to order a hit on somebody.

I clambered up to offer a few words on behalf of our family. At the reception afterward I received a brand new kind of compliment. “That was a WONDERFUL speech,” a longtime parishioner told me. As I was gearing up to say how easy it had been to praise Ellen, she elaborated. “You spoke so SLOWLY and CLEARLY. I can’t UNDERSTAND most of the families at these services.” For English teachers: this lovely lady was a fan of form, not content, but I’ll still cherish those heartfelt props until it’s time for my memorial service.

We went back to Buddy’s for more food – provided by neighbors, the church, etc. – but we were just noshing. Our emotional fuel was spent. After a while, the group began to dissipate; some of them had five, six-hour drives back home. The four of us – John, his wife Regina, my wife Linda and me – decided to caravan back toward our hotel, stop at the nearby village of Pinehurst (yep, the storied golfing spot; next year Pinehurst’s fabled No. 2 course will become the first venue in history to host both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, back-to-back), and have a beer or something at a little pub to wind down.

The Carolina-Pinehurst Resort.

The Carolina-Pinehurst Resort.

We waited in the charming town square’s parking lot, but it took John & Reg a few minutes to pull up. They’d taken a wrong turn and found themselves driving by the magnificent Carolina Hotel at the Pinehurst Resort. You gotta see it, they said. The azaleas are out, this place is way Old South. So we paused for a second and said, let’s have our drinks there. After all, we’re already dressed for it. So we hopped into John’s car and drove over.

Inside the breathtaking lobby.

Inside the breathtaking lobby.

They weren’t kidding. We strolled down a spectacular azalea-studded pathway at dusk on a perfect late-spring evening. Everything, even the temperature, was gorgeous. Just being there lifted our spirits. We walked into the main house, grand enough to impress Scarlett O’Hara, and passed through a sumptuous lobby. It’s all about golf: memorabilia all over the place. The bar is the “Ryder Cup,” get it? I ambled up to the dining room entrance and caught a sidelong glance at the menu. I later confessed that I didn’t read the selections on the left, only the numbers on the right, just to make sure we weren’t out of our league. Then I said, let’s not blow this chance. Let’s have dinner here. (Like the Omega Mus in REVENGE OF THE NERDS, we were being spontaneous.) The maitre d’ stepped on a pet peeve of my brother’s by asking, “Do you have a reservation?” while crickets were chirping in the nearly deserted room over his shoulder. He allowed as how he might be able to squeeze us in. “When would you like to dine?” Um, let me think: how about right now?

Your humble obedient blogger (l.) and bride Linda in the dining room, seconds before I gave my brother the stink-eye and said "ut-pay the amera-cay OWN-DAY."

Your humble obedient blogger (l.) and bride Linda in the dining room, seconds before I gave my brother the stink-eye and said “ut-pay the amera-cay OWN-DAY.”

Turns out we were overdressed, which was a brand new sartorial experience for me, as any of my friends can assure you. See, we had neckties on. As the well-heeled golfers began to trudge in (they filled up many more tables, but, miraculously, ours was not needed!), the drill became evident: blazer, slacks, dress shirt, no tie. We ordered drinks and scanned the menu. Our server, a Wilford Brimley lookalike, was named Ted. The immense room was right out of GRAND HOTEL. John got us started properly after we told Ted why we were in town, we’d just wandered in serendipitously, etc. He expressed his sympathy, then John sprung the trap: “…so if you have a bereavement discount, that would make it perfect.” Funny guy, a real sit-down comic.

For the next two hours, the four of us had the most wonderful time together, talking about everything under the sun. GAME OF THRONES. John’s company, Sprint, and which suitor was more likely to win its hand. Texas politics (that’s where they live). Whazzup on Broadway. Cabbages. Kings. We have such chitchats at our annual family reunion, but generally in larger groups. This was different. The weight of Ellen’s passing was mitigated by the warmth of the company: gradually, organically. The only thing which would have really made it perfect would have been having my youngest brother Rick and his wife Diana there too, but he had a huge professional obligation he just couldn’t get out of.

A parting view.

A parting view.

It was still lovely outside as we walked back to the car. It had been really rewarding to do something we hadn’t planned on, just when we needed it most. If we hadn’t already been dressed for a memorial service, we might have spent a desultory hour in some pub instead. But that’s life. You never know what you’re missing. You just never know.

The World’s Greatest Turkey Trot

November 20, 2012

ny98275You can only truly appreciate your home through the eyes of visitors. Anybody who’s proud of the place where they live is aware of that. After a quarter century here, I have beheld most New York City landmarks either (1) as a visitor, or (2) by hosting visitors. But never have guests instructed me more joyously than they did for the 85th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

First, a little background. By the time I became sentient, back in Norfolk, Virginia, my family was already watching the Macy’s throwdown on this newfangled TV thing, toward which I was attracted with magnetic force. One year, 1958 or so, my mother – a real holiday-lover, but irritated by what must have been a stray ornament prematurely offered at a humble local mom-&-pop “five-and-dime” called Japha’s – pronounced, “No Christmas music in this house until we see Santa go by in the Macy’s parade!” I have observed her dictum unto this very day; I’m actually offended by the sound of traditional holiday tunes before about noonish on Thanksgiving Day. To me, they reek of callous, cynical marketing: thanks, Mom, for inspiring only a gentle neurosis, one that doesn’t really bother anyone else unless they’re in my audible complaint zone before the Macy’s Santa’s sleigh is safely up in da 34th Street hizzle. You have weeks to gorge yourself on holiday music: from that parade-ending point until the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve. So enjoy yourself.

(I wrote a holiday radio spot back in the Eighties for a high-end shopping/office complex. The musical bed was “Easter Parade,” and the “spokesman” was the Easter Bunny. See, it may be the off-season, but he’s still here, man. He has a great big family so it really helps to get all his shopping done at one place, he can just hop in and out instead of fighting traffic at the mall, etc. Yes, cheesy, conceded, but it really stood out against all the other tiresome Yuletide clutter, the client was stoked because customers in the stores were telling his tenants how much they loved it, and it wound up winning an advertising award. Thanks again, Mom. You definitely inspired that bad boy.)

So naturally, upon moving to New York, where they stage the annual Macy’s clambake, I wanted to see the dang thing for myself, and one year, while our turkey was in the oven cooking away, we walked on over, through the park, to Central Park West. The crowd was enormous, festive, pumped. By the time we arrived, you couldn’t get anywhere near the street, so we watched through the trees at the edge of the park. We had to take the marching bands’ word for it – we could only hear them – but we had a good line of sight for some of the floats and all the giant balloons. And Santa was sitting high enough on his sleigh that we could see him go past. That meant it was OK to go back and slap on Nat King Cole (my favorite holiday album of them all) and let the Yuletide season begin.

Linda “watching” a marching band in one of our first Macy’s parades, c. 1990. How bout that hair? The background is the Dakota apartment building, where Yoko still lives.

There is a bit of cognitive dissonance involved, however. We live on the Upper East Side, across the park from the staging area where all the participants start parading. So when Santa sleighed past the top of the route, where we were, it would still take him a couple of hours to make his way down to the tv cameras at Macy’s on 34th, stopping every so often to let the cast of a new Broadway musical try to sell some tix. By the time we got back home, the NBC live broadcast still had maybe an hour or so left to go. Time travel! We could predict the future! Sweet!

We did this a few years until the novelty wore off, then quit for a while. Some years it can definitely get too cold/rainy/snowy to be much fun; the Macy’s Parade is held at the pleasure of Mother Nature. (Ever since a balloon knocked into a lamppost in 1997 and sent down debris that put one spectator into a coma, height and size restrictions have been strictly enforced: today’s balloons are smaller and lower to the ground, and parade honchos will even tank balloons altogether above a certain wind velocity.)

The view from the balcony on Central Park West on Thanksgiving Day 2007.

Much later, some good friends won a charity raffle prize allowing them to watch the parade from above, in a beautiful pre-war apartment on Central Park West, and they invited us along.

Our hosts: a family which is *tres groovy*.

It was a grand day, temperate, the leaf colors in Central Park just dazzling. There was a balcony from which we could see everything. In earlier times, we might have been closer to balloon eye level, but still: even though we were looking down, our view was absolutely unobstructed. What a parade. Magnificent! I didn’t think I’d ever get any closer. But I was dead wrong.

From this angle, Ronald McDonald looks like he might have had a couple too many Big Macs.

It takes something special like that privileged perch to make us drag butt over to CPW these days, and for Thanksgiving 2011, that something blew into town: my sister-in-law and her family from Jenks, Oklahoma. The parents and kids alike love New York (my niece’s email handle is “Broadway Bound”; she and her brother were both featured in a very credible high-school production of JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT the following spring), and they were determined to do several things: celebrate her birthday, visit the 9/11 Memorial, hang with us for a while, and see the Macy’s parade in poison. They had researched the deal on the Web. Doing it right would require far more effort than Linda and I had made those first few years: we’d have to get up in the middle of the night and book it over to CPW in order to get a good spot. For days before the big event, I swore I wouldn’t go along.

Everybody except the chick in the baby-blue were Macy’s adventurers.

The night before, we had a fine birthday celebration feast at Carmine’s, a family-style Italian place on the Upper West Side, just a few blocks from a Macy’s tradition we’d never before sampled: you can watch them start to inflate the balloons. They’re on side streets next to the parade route, and there’s a pedestrian path for a couple hours where you can get really close and discover how monstrous these things actually are. (After everybody’s had the chance to gawk at ground level, they seal off the area again and get serious about puffing these godzillas to life, which takes much of the night. By now, they have it down to a science.)

Blowin’ ’em up the night before.

Something struck me during that walk-by, I’m not sure what, but I said, OK, I’ll be as silly as you are. And so it came to pass that everybody in the house except my wife, who needed to busy herself with a Thanksgiving dinner for six, greeted the holiday very early the next morning. 3 AM? 4? All I can tell you was that it was too early for city buses. We cabbed over and did some walking to find a spot; as you might expect, parade personnel take up a lot of room, so you can’t just stroll down any street you like, not even at four in the morning. We found one on 74th Street on the city side of CPW (in other words, we were looking across at the park, just as we had been on that nice balcony), and there was some construction at the building behind us, so the whole sidewalk wasn’t available, only two or three rows. There were people already there, with music-festival folding chairs, at streetside. But they were sitting down (grrr….we were envious!), so we again had a perfectly unobstructed view, only this time we were perhaps only ten yards away from the parade!

I don’t know how my bladder held out for all those hours, but I’m positive how my back did: I could shift my weight by leaning against the construction-site wood. That’s how we waited it out, for probably three to four hours. Across the street there were bleachers, but the fortunate folks who single-filed in just before parade time had reserved them somehow. Somebody said they were the families of Macy’s parade participants. Anyhow, they got to sit down too – but as we saw them take their places, our adrenalin started to pump: it’s happening real soon now! We had smartphone apps to give us all the info we required: which attraction was coming up next, etc. We didn’t need the NBC announcers: we were right there! And when the mighty procession finally began, after our hours-long effort, let me assure you that such ephemera as bladders and backs were soon forgotten.

It is ON, dudes!

We were as close to the balloons as we’d been the night before, only now they were in full floaty regalia. Bad-ass marching bands were now huge enough to overwhelm us. Yes, that’s Cee Lo Green, that’s Neil Diamond, we know because we’re near enough to see their faces! Heck, we can see the faces of every frickin person in the parade!

Ladies and gentlemen, Mister Neil Diamond!

I looked at the pre-teen girl in front of us. Her dad or gramp had jostled her awake even earlier than we’d managed, he’d brought the folding chairs, he knew exactly where to go, and she’d whiled away the hours talking to him and idly reading THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, the illustrated source novel for Martin Scorsese’s film HUGO. She even wore the Chloe Grace Moretz beret; I wondered if she’d already seen the movie, as I had, because it hadn’t quite opened just yet. She might have discovered the cinematic magician Georges Melies that very day. Well, now the book was gone, she was on her feet, and the parade had swept her away.

A new balloon this year, designed by Tim Burton.

It’s hard to describe how jubilant, how innocent, how happy, the Macy’s Day Parade can make you feel. Writers are supposed to know how to describe stuff, but this was utterly beyond me. Perfectly normal Macy’s employees had come from all over the country to dress up in silly costumes (who knows how early they had to suit up this morning!) and march six miles in the cold for no more profound reason than to wish everybody a Happy Thanksgiving. (OK, also to try and encourage people to shop at Macy’s, but let’s be frank: if that were the only purpose, wouldn’t this be a serious case of overkill? Much easier to just sponsor a frickin NASCAR driver instead.)

Some Southern belles from somewhere. We were right glad to see ’em!

Or maybe you’re so hip that you’re immune to anything that’s irony-free. I certainly used to be. But when Santa rolled by, and we had a perfect look at him, I imagined everybody watching him on tv from far-off places like Norfolk, in far-off times like the late Fifties, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the same Santa. The NYPD finally let us cross CPW after the sleigh swept by, and I looked north, away from the receding parade. Nothing but a blissed-out street, full of happy people, with no motorized vehicles in sight. The magic was already headed downtown toward 34th Street and the tv sets of an estimated 44 million people.

The big guy himself. Let the holiday music boom forth!

We all walked back across the park and later had, as Arlo says, a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. But first, I had DVRed the NBC coverage for the younger celebrants, and they watched it avidly. It was mostly sights they’d just experienced in person, somehow validated by being beamed “live” (remember the time displacement?) to the entire nation, but they still hadn’t seen everything. In a longstanding tradition, the parade broadcast helps promote the year’s new Broadway musicals, only they don’t force those supertalented gypsies to walk the whole parade route: just suit up by Macy’s and wait for your cue. Yet somehow those live-but-really-prerecorded tv images were able to rock the whole thing for our digital-age dude/ettes. When we first walked in, Linda asked, “Did you have fun?”, and after a pee prodigious enough to impress a newly-resuscitated Austin Powers, I allowed that yes, I really had.

On behalf and in loving memory of Betty Jean Luper Dupree, I now offer two thoughts:

1)      No holiday music until you’ve seen Santa go by in the Macy’s parade!

2)      Happy Thanksgiving to you, and to everyone you hold dear.

Kristmas Kamping

December 31, 2010

We spent Christmas at a KOA campground owned by my sister (in-law, but heck, she’s still my sis) Roz

My sister Roz is the best hostess ever.

and her husband Cal

Cal is cutting homemade pizza into slices. Does it *get* any better?

in the Colorado Desert near Niland, California. They call it “camping with a K,” and we had a nice cabin with indoor plumbing: my kind of kamping! We’d driven Linda’s dad all the way from Phoenix (4:15 without stopping, but we do stop…), and we’d enjoyed both the staff Christmas Eve party, and Christmas Day dinner, a spectacular service of ham, yam, taters, the best dinner rolls you’ve ever had, etc. If this is camping, I’m all for it! (Of course, the campground exists so that big recreational vehicles can stop, park, juice up, and – in this case at least – have a superb restaurant meal. Some people even live there.)

The Glamis North KOA is situated very close to, but not too close to, the famous Glamis sand dunes, where far too many drunk people roar over unscouted territory, pretending they’re BULLITT stunt drivers, in All-Terrain Vehicles. The Glamis North folks like their ATVs too, but they prefer to head out into the desert to explore. We did it ourselves last year. It’s tremendous fun.

My bride waiting to blast off, last year. Take it from me: it’s FUN!

Linda’s dad can’t ATV these days, so we asked our hosts to send us on a driving trip. Easy, they said: go to Slab City and Salvation Mountain! They asked us, “Have you seen INTO THE WILD?” And of course we had, but we’d never pegged the real locations. Slab City is the “last free place on Earth,” the concrete foundation of an abandoned WWII Marine barracks. There is no electricity, no water, no nothing. And no charge for any of this nothingness. So, well-off “snowbirds” park their RVs alongside impoverished squatters.

You get to Salvation Mountain just before Slab City. It was painted by a guy who loves his Jesus. His name is Leonard Knight, and that previous sentence doesn’t even begin to describe the ardor with which he has dressed this place. I went down and talked to him.

Leonard Knight, who painted the mountain and everything else within reach.

Let’s try some pix:

Deep inside the works.

See if you can’t divine your own personal New Year’s message from these shots.

Everything he can see, he paints.

It’s up to you.

Man: that’s dedication.

However you receive these heartfelt sentiments, please accept my very best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2011.

This One’s For, Like, My Niece

August 15, 2010

I just got back from our annual Dupree/Luper family reunion, instituted last year in loving memory of our sainted mom. (Linda and I have terrific families on both sides.) I used to go to Bloomington, Indiana, to visit Mom about three times a year, but those trips ceased when she passed away in late 2008. This year, the whole darn clambake was in B-town, so all of a sudden it had been quite a while since I’d seen my Indiana niece, now 20, whom I’ve known, of course, since she was a zygote. Nowadays, she’s loving, vibrant, attractive, cheerful, charming, playful, in-your-face improvisatory, able to dig irony and throw it right back at you. She’s about as wonderful a niece as is my other brother’s delightful daughter, the Texan (soon to become a New Yorker!). Great young lady.

I have only one problem with this otherwise impeccable kid:

Along with all her close friends, she peppers her speech with the word “like.”

The niece who says “like” all the time.

I want this word back. (I want “gay” back too, but it’s being put to pretty good use, so Uncle Tom cries “uncle” on that one.)

You’ve heard it too. This is not the beatnik affectation of, say, a Maynard G. Krebs, in Bob Denver’s first hilarious characterization. Not “Like, man, what’re we gonna do tonight?” This is a reflexive interjection that means something akin to “I’m filling up a space here that doesn’t really exist,” and “but you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been there too, right?,” and “I don’t want to get too specific because this is just a casual conversation.”

“We went to, like, the beach, and I brought all my like sunscreen and stuff, but I forgot my flipflops. I was all, how did I do that? So he like went out of his way to drive me back home. It took like half an hour.”

The one who doesn’t.

While I’m visiting, I enjoy acting like a dip and raising my hand as if I were in school. She calls on me and I try to get some clarification: did he actually go out of his way, or was it just something similar that he did? By now, when my hand goes up the first time, she knows she’s busted. And for the two or three days until I finally, mercifully, go back home, she actually tries to censor that expression, and in fact does a pretty good job of it. But you have to concentrate to strike “like.” It’s like – and I do mean similar to — a hiccup. It just comes out. It’s part of the patois. Hang around younger people long enough and you may find yourself tossing the “likes” around too. I’ve heard thirty-somethings do it. Book editors!

I know, I know, it’s a losing battle, and I may be the last one waging it. Who really cares, after all? If that’s the worst thing you can come up with, you’re dealing with a pretty amazing person. But if for a couple days a year, I can get one young lady to, like, slow down a little when in my presence, why then, my work is done. Hey, why’s that hand up in the air?

8/1/11: At this year’s family reunion, my niece had almost completely cleaned up her act: I even complimented her on it! Turns out she’d been practicing during the 11-hour drive to North Carolina, but still, that’s proactive and deserves a cheer.

The spectacles complete the new “like”-less look at the 2011 reunion.

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