Monday, March 23, 2015

Two Nicknames, a Prank, and Half a Musing on Death and Stuff (1 Nov. 2013)

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are ….
"Ulysses," Tennyson (1833/1842)

            Don't take my headnote overly seriously. Whatever Alfred Tennyson was thinking about when he wrote "Ulysses," this part of the poem is from an oration by Ulysses to men he wants to convince to follow him on a kind of suicide mission. So keep in mind that "Ulysses" is the Roman name for "the wily Odysseus" — and, even more than Greeks bearing gifts, beware Greeks mellifluously spooning out high-flown rhetoric trying to get you to do something dangerous.

            Tennyson aside, basically what I've got here is two frat stories.

            At the time and place I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana (shortly after the retreat of the glaciers), my fraternity brothers usually produced the "clipped" forms of words by using the last syllable. Hence, rather than saying "We're going to the Libe," we would say we were going to the "'Brary"; and, hence, one possible nickname for Brother Erlich — with my last name pronounced "err-lick" — would be "'Lich."

            Got that? Add to it that idea, that yes, some frat rats in the 1960s did go to the library; see Robert Hoover's line on getting academic information from "the Jewish house" in Animal House, for the stereotypes appropriate to the era — and just keep it in mind — well, and that "Robert Hoover" is called "Hoover" in the movie but other inmates of the Delta Tau Chi animal house go by nicknames, probably those given them by their pledge master when they pledged.

            Anyway, I did get the nickname 'Lich but not from my pledge trainer but from pledges: it was a present from the class of '65-50 (i.e., midyear between the classes of 1965 and 1966).

            The '65-50s were very pleased with themselves giving me that name, and at a relatively public event, and, given other things I'd been called, and would later be called, it was fine with me.

            I liked that pledge class, and when I was asked by their pledge trainer to help him run their hell week, I said I'd be happy to and would try to do my bit to make it a rewarding or at least mostly positive memory for them. (I owed the pledge trainer a personal favor — he'd driven me to and from oral surgery — and some more general politics came in here: he and I were committed to having pledging and hell weeks memorable in the sense of "Hey, I did that," as opposed to repressed thoughts of what you'd done under the rubric of "paddling & perversion.")

            Helping run the hell week meant losing four or five days of semester break, though, so I had one request for a bit of repayment: I wanted to say a few words to the "neophytes" before we got started — which he said was fine, since he was expected to address them as we got started, and I could have a minute or so afterwards.

            I finished in that time limit without difficulty since all I had to say was that they were a fine pledge class and I liked them and I liked the nickname they'd given me, but had noticed their smirking while announcing the nickname; and I noted that with the first name of "Richard" and the nickname of an Anglicized Germanic "'Lich," I might have associated with me the phrase, "dick lick," which even in our far less homophobic days can have negative connotations. (Indeed, when entering on my unbrilliant career in the movie biz, I said I'd come out west to whore myself to Hollywood, if possible, "but I don't do blow-jobs or public relations," so I think I still have some qualms about at least some forms of literally "sucking up to" [although my attitudes toward both giving BJs and doing PR has more to do with my gag-mechanism than my morality].)

            And having made my little speech I spent the remainder of that hell week doing what my friend the pledge trainer told me to do, neither more nor less.

            As I suspected at the time, and had confirmed in conversation with one of the '65-50s many years later, I freakin' freaked out! High anxiety, man! As the end of hell week approached, these guys got nervous and then anxious, and then borderline panicked over what horrible thing I had conspired to do to them. (We were a chapter of a fraternity with "Lambda" in the name and had the nickname "Lammies," with a pun on "lamb," so some particularly grotesque possibilities eventually entered their fevered minds as they wondered if we had totally eliminated both "p's" in "paddling & perversion.")

            As someone who'd grown up in his family as "the Good One" (my sister was "the Smart One") and who had an exemplary high school record of public service, as a guy who functioned in my fraternity as one of the stable ones, an officer who enforced ethics, useful customs, civility, and The Rules — I really enjoyed that prank.

            Hey, as we used to say, "If you can't fuck over a brother, who can you fuck?" Or, if you can't sometimes prank and "mind-fuck" make temporarily miserable your friends, how much good are they?

            The other nickname I had came from someone — I'll call him "Edmund" — who pledged when I was a new initiate and whom, therefore, I might've behaved toward, at least occasionally, in new-initiate mode; i.e., I might've been an asshole.

            I don't think so, however — or at least I behaved no worse toward Edmund than to guys who forgave me.

            Anyhow, liking and dislike is far from a rational choice, and I just didn't particularly like him nor his friends at the ol' frat lodge, and they pretty actively disliked me — and gave me the nickname "Stump." The name was cruel but apt, given the undeniable fact that I was short and had weight issues for just about my entire life (skinny as a small child; fat after an injury laid me up and I kept eating as I had when hyper-active — and as an undergrad, I was, let's say, stocky).

            One day Edmund came up to me in the hall, backed by his friends and said, "Stump, take away your mouth and what have you got [going for you]?" I replied, "A mind," and his friends laughed and said, "See, you can't beat him at it."

            Another victory for the kid! This kid! At the time. Me.

            Except it wasn't. Not a lasting victory.

            My body has held out longer than those of many of my contemporaries — the president of the chapter when the '65-50s initiated died not very long after they graduated — and my mind has held fairly well.

            Still, that mind will go, and I am "not now that [mental] strength "which in old days" may not have exactly "move earth and heaven," but could move pretty quickly from focus to focus in what we call  "multitasking." And it can take me a while to remember names or where I left my glasses.

            Ulysses is correct, if kind of obvious, with "that which we are, we are"; and, yeah, what I am, I am. What we can choose, though, is how we name ourselves, and, to some extent, how we define ourselves — so long as mind lasts, the mind that allows naming and definition.

            I answer to the name of "Rich" and, with some old friends, the nickname "'Lich." I remember the prank on guys I liked and who liked me enough to tease me in a friendly way. I do not answer to "Stump," and take little pleasure in briefly one-upping someone who disliked me enough to want to hurt me with no profit to himself.

            Is there a difference between my playing with the heads of the '65-50 initiates and Edmund's insult to me? It's a good question. In a sense, I went on to write my master's essay on it and to a large extent my dissertation.

            I'm still working on the question; it's important to my idea the guy who answers to "Rich."

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