Celebrating the Gateway to Who I Am

“I’m Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore”

(Rallying cry shouted by anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network)

For decades, I have gifted myself with special birthday gifts. I always buy the gifts months in advance. I always enclose a special note, reminding myself of how special I am. I always wrap the gifts in extravagant, over-the-top gift wrap. And, then, I hide them. With any luck, when my birthday rolls around, I’ll remember not only the gifts that I bought myself but also where I hid them.

This year, though, I decided that one gift to myself would come a few days before my birthday and that I would share it with the world, right here in my blog.

Actually, on November 20, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. (Cards. Chocolates. A Viking Cruise. Any or all of those gifts are welcome. I used to include a 4-door Jeep as an option after the Chocolates, but these days I feel like a gladiator in the Jeep Gladiator that I drive. So I tossed in a Viking Cruise as a gift option. Just saying.)

So let me tell you about my birthday gift. I mean, after all, my life in general is so public that talking about one of this year’s gifts shouldn’t be a big deal. Right? Wrong. I had to think long and hard before deciding whether to go public.

Now, I’m betting that you’re scorching to know what my gift is. I certainly hope so. I promise you that the big reveal shall come in just another candle or two. After all, 75 candles make quite a virtual glow, and I hate to blow them out too quickly. Oh, what the hell. I’ll go ahead and blow them out. No doubt, they’ll all light up again.

All right. The candles are out, so let me get glowing with my gift before they flame up again and distract me.

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “How are you, Sweetie?”

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “Can I help you, Dearie?”

Simply put, I’ve had one too many: “Did you find what you were looking for, Honey?”

Let me pause to reassure you. I do not think, not even for one nanosecond, that the people who greet me with those terms of endearment are being mean-spirited or rude. They have good intentions.

And let me pause to give you another reassurance. Greetings such as those often have strong regional ties, especially in the South. I grew up there. It’s my home. I know.

Others who grew up in the South know, too. For example, one of my students in the Virginia community college where I teach had this to say when my class and I had a rich and robust conversation recently about Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey:

“I work in a grocery store, and I greet everyone that way.”

“Even customers in their twenties or thirties?” I queried.

“Hmmm. No.”

“How about forties or fifties?” I pursued.

“Fifties, maybe. It depends on how old they look.”

So there. We have it. “Depends on how old they look.”

As for me, I was born old, and I’ve always looked old. But it wasn’t until my sixties and seventies that others started calling me Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey.

And, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether the greeting is a regional, hard-to-break custom or not.

And, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter whether the greeting is well-intentioned or not.

Such greetings fall into a category of their own–side by side with Racism and Sexism. The category has a name. Ageism.

All three–Racism, Sexism, and Ageism–diminish our humanity and push us toward being “lesser-thans.”

Sweetie, Dearie, and Honey are especially diminishing in settings where the name is right there in front of the person who isn’t calling you by your name.

Here’s a perfect example. A few years ago, I had to have a CT scan at a nearby medical center. Obviously, I was feeling more than a little anxious. I needed to feel that regardless of the outcome, the person I was when I walked in would be the same person when I walked out. I needed to feel that regardless of the diagnosis, I would still be me. I needed to feel that I would still have my identity.

The diagnosis was a good one. But, sadly, during the short time that it took for the CT scan, I was called “Sweetie” two times, all the while that I was asked each time to verify my date of birth and my full name. Duh. I have a name, dammit. Why not use it? The check-in specialist as well as the radiographer were looking right at it while requiring me to verify it. By not using my name, I felt diminished and robbed of my unique identity.

More recently, the same thing happened when I went to my local pharmacy for my annual flu shot, the same pharmacy where I’ve been vaccinated for the last 24 years. I know everyone who works there. They know me, too. I’ve had many of them in one or more of my classes. The pharmacy technician approached me with the syringe and band-aid mid air.

“Name and birth date, please” was followed with, “Which arm Sweetie?”

Duh. I have a name, dammit. Why not use it? The technician was looking right at it while requiring me to verify it. By not using my name, I felt diminished and robbed of my unique identity.

Quite frankly, I’ve been identity-diminished and identity-robbed one time too many. And like anchorman Howard Beale in Network (1976), “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more.”

Here’s why I’m mad as hell. And here’s why I’m not going to take this any more.

At this point in my life–as I approach my 75th birthday–my father is dead, my mother is dead, my oldest brother is dead, many of my closest friends and colleagues are dead, and my partner is dead.

One of the few things that I have left to remind me of my humanity is my name. My name is the gateway to my identity. My name is the gateway to who I am.

Without my name, I’m just another Sweetie.

Without my name, I’m just another Dearie.

Without my name, I’m just another Honey.

So here’s my birthday gift to myself this year.

I will no longer allow others to call me Sweetie, Dearie, or Honey. I will no longer allow others to diminish my identity.

Whenever those well-intentioned terms of endearment grate my ears and pierce my being, I will rise up to the full height of my politest best, and I will do my utmost to turn those ageist moments into learning moments.

My come-back might be as simple as:

“Why, thank you, Elliot. I’d love it if you called me by my name: Brent.”

Or maybe I’ll try something like this:

“Thanks, Skyler. Do you know the most beautiful word in any language?”

“In any language? No idea. What is it?”

“A person’s name.”

“Really.”

“Yep. Isn’t that amazing. By the way. I’m Brent. Next time we meet, feel free to call me by my name.”

Now that I’ve unwrapped my gift in this blog–right here in public–I’m thinking that this might just be the best birthday gift that I’ve given myself in a long, long time. I can’t think of anything better than celebrating the gateway to who I am. Who knows. It might just be a gift that keeps on giving.

Touching Lives through Giving

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Sir Winston Churchill

As a student and as a professor, I have learned some of my best life-lessons through classroom repartee—those lively, light-hearted and spontaneous exchanges that give way to intellectual magic.

As this season of celebrating and gifting winds down and as the year 2021 that gave us all fantods comes to a thankful end, I am reminded of one those magically powerful exchanges from long, long ago. However, its initial significance has been outdistanced by its long-range influence: perpetual mind food (more accurately, soul food) given freely (perhaps, unknowingly). It matters little or not at all whether it was intended for mind or soul. It matters little or not at all whether it was given deliberately or unknowingly. I have savored it and relished it down through the years.

I was a 25-year-old graduate student in an American Literature class at the University of South Carolina. One of the short stories that the late Professor Joel Myerson gave us to read was “Life Everlastin’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

I knew that I had better know all the intricacies of the story before going to class. It was, after all, a graduate class. Equally important, the class was so small that we met in a small conference room and sat around a small oval conference table, with Professor Myerson charismatically leading us. Youthful (only several years older than I and the rest of the class), energetic, and intellectually stimulating, he inspired us to come to class prepared to engage in stimulating conversations, demonstrating our abilities to analyze literary works. Professor Myerson was a Formalist and a Textual Bibliographer. Nothing mattered but the literary work itself. Nothing mattered but the text. Without doubt, I needed to give that story my best.

I had been introduced to Freeman the semester before when another professor gave us some of her stories to read, and I had fallen in love with her fiction. Having to read her “Life Everlastin'” was a joy for me.

I read the story initially, and I gave it a second reading, and I am confident that I gave it yet a third reading. Professor Myerson loved giving literary works a close reading. So did I.

I wondered what take he would give the story.

Would he give it a close reading based on the story’s accurate depiction of New England village life?

Would he give it a close reading focusing on the sharp character delineations of the two diametrically opposite sisters? Maybe Mrs. Ansel who is totally preoccupied with being fitted for a new bonnet: “She was always pleased and satisfied with anything that was her own, and possession was to her the law of beauty.”

Maybe her spinster, non-churchgoing sister, Luella Norcross, who was always giving to others, who was always going “somewheres after life-everlastin’ blossoms. … If she was not in full orthodox favor among the respectable part of the town, her fame was bright among the poor and maybe lawless element, whom she befriended.”

Would he take the conversation up a notch or three by pitting seemingly shallow churchgoers (e. g. Mrs. Ansel) against those of seemingly deeper convictions (e. g. Luella Norcross) who stayed home and foraged the fields in search of life everlasting blossoms to give away, much in the same spirit of Emily Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”? Or would he perhaps compare Mrs. Ansel’s apparent lack of religious depth to E. E. Cummings’ poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”?

Or might he go even deeper and explore the story as a subtle indictment of religion similar to the charge that Mark Twain gave organized religion in his “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Who does not recall the fact that Dan’l, the frog, was so full of quail-shot that he when he went to hop, “he couldn’t budge: he was planted as solid as a church and he couldn’t no more stir than if he was anchored out.” 

And, without doubt, Professor Myerson had to give the backbone of the story lots of attention: Luella’s discovery of two murdered neighbors; her discovery that the alleged murderer (John Gleason) was holed up in a vacant house next to her home; her realization that she had to give him up to the law; and her dramatic decision that she had to give in to her faith: “I don’t see any other way out of it for John Gleason!”

I went to class fully prepared to give my own two cents worth on any or all of those angles.

Indeed, we gave all of them lively pursuits, all that is save one. We did NOT discuss what seemed to me to be the very essence of the story: life everlasting.

I was stunned. No. I was surprised. I suspected that it was with deliberate intent that Professor Myerson did not take the conversation in the direction of the story’s obvious eschatological meaning: the destiny of the soul and of humankind after death. I knew that he wanted us to think about—and talk about—that aspect of the story independently without giving us any coaching.

Silence fell over the class.

There I sat, feeling that we had an obligation to move toward the eschatological and that he had an obligation to take us there. I gave a question that broke the silence.  

“So, Professor Myerson, what exactly IS life everlasting?” I was hoping that the question I gave him would make him squirm.

But he had the upper hand and knew precisely how to make me squirm. An expert in the Socratic method, he gave the question right back to me. “What do YOU think it is, Brent?” 

Aha! The chance for repartee had arrived! I gave in to the moment. I seized it. 

I looked him square in the eye, with an ever-so-innocent look, as I gave him nothing more than the straight botanical definition—a flowering plant in the mint family, noted for its healing, medicinal properties. Then I rambled on about Luella’s inclusion of life-everlasting in the pillows that she made and gave to help neighbors, especially those who were asthmatic.  

I could tell that Professor Myerson was on to me. I was known for this sort of academic maneuvering, and he was not amused. He gave me his over-the-glasses look that he was so skilled in giving. 

I waited to see what he would say—he always said something whenever he gave that look—but we both had to give up for the time being. Class ended.

But Professor Myerson always had a way of getting his way, in one way or another. This time would be no exception. A few days later he stopped me in the hall. With a twinkle in his eyes, he gave me an offprint of one of his articles that had been published in a scholarly magazine. On the front, he had written:

Brent,

This is life everlasting.

Joel Myerson

“What does THAT mean?” I pondered, as I walked away. I confess, however, to no small degree of jealousy. At that point in my life, I was unpublished. Nothing had appeared in print under my name.  But here was Professor Myerson—already a well-known, published scholar, albeit a young one—giving me an inscribed, offprint of his most recent scholarly article.

I had to give this gift more thought.

Did he realize the full impact of his gift?

Or was he a young professor giving me the selfsame banter that I had given him in class?

Or was his gift more serious? Was he giving me another way to look at life everlasting—perhaps different from the traditional eschatological view? Was he suggesting that we live on forever through what we share with others, especially ideas that are immortalized in print? Maybe so. After all, some cultures believe that we live as long as our name is spoken. If that was his intent, he succeeded. Here I am blogging about him, nearly fifty years later. Here I am placing his name in public view, albeit this time under my own name. Whoever reads this blog post will speak his name, even if silently. They may even share my story with others. Professor Myerson continues to live. 

His inscribed offprint had an immediate impact. It gave me some extra encouragement not only to finish my doctoral degree in American Literature but also to publish my own scholarly articles and books. I wanted to give my ideas away to others through the printed word. When that happened for the first time, I was thrilled, and the high that I experience now through being published is as high as it was then.

But here’s the greater truth. His gift touched my soul perhaps more than it touched my mind. It kept me mindful that as human beings we all have needs—immediate and long-range.

It kept me mindful that the needs are great, always and in all ways. In fact, during these pandemic years, the needs are daunting. No. They are staggering. 

Fortunately, for us and for others, the ways that we can touch lives through giving— whatever it is that we have within ourselves to give—are countless. 

We can give our ideas.

We can give our talents

We can give our time.

We can give our purse.

We can give our love.

We can give ourselves—mind, body, and soul

Our gifts need not be large. Our gifts need not be given with any expectation of ever knowing how much they touch others’ lives or of how much they impact others’ lives. This much, though, we do know about giving. It connects us to one another. It binds us to one another. It makes us aware of our relatedness to one another. 

Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, when we touch others’ lives by giving freely of ourselves—without any expectation of receiving anything in return—we might be edging our way, even if unawares, closer and closer and closer toward the very essence of life everlasting.