by Richard Risemberg
The troubles I have suffered in my life are not great ones; in fact, they are more often absurd. I offer a current example: my wife has persisted for years in addressing me as “Snookums,” though she knows I dislike the very word. Now, I understand that it is spoken as a sign of affection—as she has explained, her mother addressed her father thus, and it comes naturally to her, especially as it reminds her of the better days of her childhood. But I am a product of my own age and class, and I have my vanities. Said vanities spur me to buck against the burden of such a moniker, which I consider undignified. That is pretentious of me, I know; it implies a consciousness of my dignity that is without doubt too concentrated, but I too must live with the habits of my childhood, which were deeply and often structurally ingrained in me by my exacting parents. I was to be a “man” of a certain type, one who would give them occasion to feel pride in having given the world the gift of me.
Whether I am really a “gift” in any functional sense is something I have been pondering for years. If I rebuff, even in the silence of my mind, my wife’s favored expression of attachment, simply to satisfy what any reasonable if typical person would judge an affectation, can I be so much of a benefit to the chaotic and inescapably casual society we live in? I am sure that many would consider me to be, as it was often put in the vernacular of my younger days, a “stuffed shirt.” Is there a genuine social value in that? Am I really the model to young men that my parents devoted their lives to making of me? Or am I just a consumer of others’ labor who can return nothing to them (outside of monetary recompense, of course) but a vague sense of shame, or perhaps just irritation? This is a matter to which I have been applying what intellectual capabilities I can boast of, though boasting is not indulged in by men like me, at least not directly.
In this regard, I have, however, come to realize that my very attitude—not just my construct of self-regard but the carriage and clothing I affect, the cut of my hair and professorial beard—all that constitutes a form of braggadocio.
I am not sure I find that to be a disagreeable confession. I am, after all, actually a professor, leading seminars in a well-known university, and offering my services as a consultant to what are these days referred to as “knowledge-based businesses,” those that facilitate access to information. I am fully aware that oftentimes, perhaps most of the time, the access they offer to unlock for a fee is limited by those selfsame companies in order to create a profitable business, but I do not consider that to be greatly different from the relatively venerable practices of copyright and patent. I too have information, insights, what have you, that I do not give away, but parcel out to those companies, and to my students, in bits and pieces. My stock in trade is not displayed free of charge on some glossy website open to all; my website—mine by virtue of myself being the underwriter of its modest costs—sells only me, whom you must contract with to learn what I know. Braggadocio, image, attitude, albeit elegantly expressed, are what keep me in my august state of wool suits, a large garden (complete with weekly gardener), and a house suitable for entertaining other equally pretentious souls.
There is no room in my world for a moniker such as “Snookums.” Perhaps my wife’s persistence in applying that term to me is a form of subtle and jocular rebellion, or perhaps it is the natural result of being burdened with seeing me in my underwear at least twice a day, and hearing me complain of my ills when I have them, which is fortunately so far not often. We sit at table and eat together, pushing bits of plants and animals into holes in our faces and mashing them with those fragments of exposed skeleton we call “teeth.” She is not likely to address me as “Professor.”
I must say that my wife, despite her regrettable (by me) attachment to sentimentality, is a remarkable person, far more capable in life than I am. I do not speak here only of the practical matters she excels in—such praises are often used, at least by men of my generation, to “damn with faint praise,” or, if not precisely to “damn,” certainly to belittle, the women they live with. Render them in the guise of a moderately elevated servant, clever in a Jeevesian way but still subordinate. No: I frankly admit that my wife is a genius, and I stress that that is not an opinion held by myself alone. She is more in demand as a consultant than I am, and if our economy were not predicated in part on a supposedly lower status of the female majority, she would probably earn more than I do. Although I hold a more advanced degree in my field than she does in hers, she expresses by far the more brilliant insights. I do not begrudge her this. I do mention it not (or so I hope) as another form of braggadocio, but simply to draw a contrast between her public perception (the slim and sharp-eyed analyst presented on her website, complete with testimonials from Famous Persons) and the seemingly incongruous category of femininity she exhibits at home, where she innocently persists in referring to my own modestly august self as “Snookums.”
I have pondered whether her persistence is underlain by a desire to wear down my stiffness, and I have gone so far as to query her directly on the matter—we are remarkably free with each other—but she denies any unconscious motivations beyond the sentimental one already explicated above. So I am in a quandary. I do not wish to negotiate her away from a cherished practice—not that I am likely to be able to do so—but I am at a loss as to how to accommodate myself to it.
One might suggest that I engage the services of an analyst of a more intimate sort, to assist me in mapping my way out of this minor conundrum, as I help others map their way to profitability without avoidable exploitation of employees, suppliers, and clients. The fact is, however, that I have met perhaps a dozen times with an incisive female psychologist who is one of the resources my wife calls upon occasionally in her own professional endeavors. Unfortunately, her advice has not been of significant utility to myself, for the low potentiality of harm involved in the “case,” and of course the triviality of the complaint, seemed not to spur the good doctor to plumb the depths of her impressive experience in search of a workable protocol for me to exercise, whether internally or externally. In short, she told me not to be such a stuffed shirt (she is of my generation), but she failed to supply me with techniques that might bring about the unstuffing of said shirt, if I may attempt a bit of jocularity. I was not particularly dismayed by this, because I am not sure I wish to plunge myself into a morass of indignity, when it is my dignity—whether real or superficial—that rewards me with both cash and admiration. So, the good doctor and I parted professional ways, both unsatisfied with the lack of progress achieved, but neither one in any way dismayed with what must be described as a failure, albeit one as trivial as the complaint. I continued on, straw leaking out between the buttons of my metaphorical shirt, head held high, and so forth, earning a living, helping commerce behave in a perhaps slightly less predatory manner, and drinking (in moderation, of course) wines of an elevated but not extravagant price range. And continuing to wince when addressed as “Snookums” by my wife, even in private.
Finally I decided an attempt at bargaining might be acceptable. I asked my wife to sit for an interview with me, wherein I asked her what might be the habits, characteristics, or practices with which I might be afflicting her, that she found annoying or, perhaps, even loathesome. I suggested as possibilities my excessive formality, which I confess to engaging in even at home, except under certain liberating influences such as romantic excitation; or perhaps, I hinted, my self-regard was off-putting. I do not believe myself to be excessively burdened with self-regard, being in fact probably as insecure as any other fellow with some modest accumulation of semi-public admiration; however, I am well aware that one’s self-image rarely accords with the image others may construct of one, regardless of one’s private sensations. My plan in asking her this was simply then to offer an amelioration of said characteristic or activity in exchange for her abandonment of the term “Snookums.”
Let me stress to the outsider that this form of bargaining was an activity we occasionally engaged in as a sort of amusement, but that we at the same time freighted it with serious intent. We have always indulged in our own way of combining amusement with accomplishment, which generally involves substantive but good-natured self-mockery—of ourselves as individuals, and of ourselves as a not quite standard-issue couple. So she did not attend to my proposal with the profound seriousness I had hoped for, choosing to highlight extremely trivial matters that I was well aware would not truly distress her in any way, superficial or profound. Certainly I could not expect her to trade her practice of employing that ridiculous moniker simply for my discarding my habit of combing my hair left-handed, although I am right-handed—something I do because the natural part of my hair falls on the right side of my head, and I have found it more comfortable to pull the comb with my left hand rather than push it with my right. This is a matter of no importance to anyone, including my wife, though I was rather surprised to learn that she had even noticed. I am not certain that I did until she mentioned it.
In the end she offered a professional-grade insight when she pointed out that I might find a complete inversion of my proposal to be of greater utility in achieving my goal, which she tentatively defined as a sense of what she called “admirability” in our household relationship. I was not sure that “admirability” was a term admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary, my standard reference in lexicological matters, and challenged her on it, but a quick digression into the online edition proved her, as usual, correct. My challenge, I must stress, did not irritate her in any way, as we both consider a high level of (in fact) admirability to inhere in the verification of disputed terms. So we returned to the matter at hand, whether in truth the term “Snookums” was worthy of application to a full-grown and moderately high-status member of the professional classes, even in the privacy of the home. It was one of those benevolent fatalities that occasionally attend one in literate discourse that the Oxford was still glowing with potentiality on the computer screen, and I bent and typed the word “snookums” into the search box. We were both pleasantly surprised when a definition was in fact returned by the silent workings of electrons in a distant processor (the processor itself a miracle wrought from a byproduct of ordinary sand…). We huddled side by side and read the definition, with perhaps some dismay, at least on my part: “A trivial term of endearment, usually applied to children or lap-dogs.” The earliest citation credited a Ladies’ Home Journal article from 1919. After a moment of silence, we both laughed.
I harrumphed with what I hoped was mock sententiousness: “I am neither a child nor a dog,” I said. I believe I even hooked my thumbs into my suspenders for greater comic effect. (I wear suspenders not because of any antipathy towards belts as a class, but precisely because they allow me to hook my thumbs in them for a bit of theatrical enhancement when lecturing.)
“Indisputably true,” my wife said. “However, it may be that my use of the term indicates that I feel certain protective sensations towards you, as one would to a child or small friendly animal. And is it not the incongruity of such a sentiment applied to a large and successful man the very basis of our domestic relationship? An indication that you are safe at home and suffer no compulsion to expend nervous energy in maintaining your professional image? In short, an invitation to relax?” She smiled, and placed her hand on my arm. “You have been working very hard lately…Snookums.”
I confess that I felt a great sense of comfort at that moment, one that I am certain she engineered. I did not mind that, for (assuming I was correct) she did so out of affection, rather in quest of a more nefarious influence over my actions.
What she suggested, in the end, was that I settle upon an equivalent term to apply to her, something more poetic than my usual choice of “darling,” which she in fact felt to be a rather vapid term with no real meaning, tossed about, as she put, the way victorious soldiers hand out candy to the battered citizens of a country they themselves have devastated, thus making the vaquished receptive to their modest bribes. Clearly that would not do, and clearly my addressing her as “darling” did not arouse in her the comforts I had intended should result from my application of the venerable term to her person. She had, in short, a point, one she had expressed to me the way I would have expressed it myself, had I thought of it.
Once again, we bent towards the glowing monitor, in wordless simultaneity, and found that “darling” derived from “dear,” whose original and now obsolete definition connoted “glorious, noble, honourable, worthy,” but which had diverged into various lesser meanings, such as “expensive” in certain usages (primarily in the United Kingdom), expressing “affection or regard,” or simply as a generic form of address in written communications. While many of its current and obsolete usages did in fact express the feelings my wife inspires in me, I agreed with her that, as a term of affection, it had become rather diluted from overuse. “Snookums,” she pointed out, while it may have suffered a vogue a few decades before, during her parents’ time, was now no longer in favor, and so had, by scarcity, become more precious a term, and one worthy of applying to a close and intricate relationship such as ours. I was forced to agree, feeling somewhat as a judge must feel who is required to set aside personal inclinations in order to conform a disputed situation to the body of law, or even to the Constitution (if practicing in the United States). I accepted her argument, and conceded: I would accept and enjoy her employment of the term “Snookums” in regard to myself.
The other part of the settlement, that of finding a more accurate and more personal term that I should apply to her in ordinary discourse, remained to be negotiated. It was, of course, my wife who guided us to a resolution, albeit indirectly. “Did not your parents ever use terms of affection amongst themselves?” she asked.
I shook my head and emitted a rather constructed sigh. “You know how they were,” I answered. “Worse than myself, I assure you. I have not remained entirely untouched by modern trends. But I never heard them refer to each other by any terms other than Mr. and Mrs. My friends found it quite comical, but then, I didn’t have many friends.” A dim memory suddenly brightened. “However,” I said, “my mother’s sister, my aunt Trudy, was generally addressed as, well, as ‘Tootsie’ by her husband. That is, in fact, the name I remember her by.”
Once again we bent towards the bluish glow of the screen. “Tootsie” was, of course, acknowledged by the Oxford; it is a term meaning “A woman, a girl; a sweetheart.” The earliest citation was from 1895, which meant that, at least as far as the Oxford’s contributors knew, its currency in the language predated that of “snookums.” Although the citations originated generally in detective novels larded with lower-class slang, authors as august as E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence had employed it. My wife said, “If famous writers who are known primarily by their initials, as you are in your field, are able to employ it comfortably, certainly you can. Let us essay the term; I am comfortable being addressed thus in the intimacy of our domicile.” She said this in a tone of exaggerated formality, then relaxed and added: “In other words, you okay with that…Snookums?”
I looked at her and said, “Yeah, I guess I’m okay with that—Tootsie.” The word stumbled slightly coming out of my mouth, but I did speak it. I added, “It’s quite the proverbial slippery slope, is it not? Who knows but that in a year I may be dancing on tables….”
She said, “If you are, Snookums, ensure that it be a large table, for I shall definitely join you!”
We both laughed, and rushed off to celebrate another successful negotiation, leaving the Oxford to glimmer in solitude on the desk.
Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime. He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties. He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing.
He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Paradigm to it all.
Mr. Risemberg has published stories, poems, essays, editorials, and articles in numerous edited publications; you may view the current list at http://crowtreebooks.com/richard-risemberg-publications/.