Farrar Straus GirouxCopyright © 1999 Calvin Trillin
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780374525835
The Evil Eye, the Tiny Deflator
Even if I were more inclined than I am to hand outadvice that may be inappropriate and would probablybe ignored anyway, I would be constrained by anotherconsideration: the Evil Eye. People who treat the Evil Eye withsome respect can tell you that anyone dispensing advice aboutfamily — and thus implying that he and his own family are soblessed, so close to perfection that it behooves them to sharewith others the secret of their success — is asking for trouble. Iam talking now simply about people who treat the Evil Eyewith some respect; true believers in the Evil Eye might evenlook upon a statement that your children haven't done any jailtime as a way to invite a late-night call from a bail bondsman.
The Evil Eye is not spoken of much in modern Americanlife. Among the young, you don't often even hear someonehedge his bet with a simple "knock on wood." The sort ofpublic officials who are always lecturing us about family valuesseem not to fear the Evil Eye, any more than they seem to fearthe possibility that some reporter might find it entertaining touncover the circumstances of their last divorce or point out thatthey missed both of their children's high school graduationceremonies. I'm not superstitious myself. I don't avoid black cats anymore than I avoid cats of any color. Alice and I were married onFriday the 13th. I have never acknowledged that there is anysuperstition behind my policy of not resetting my watch until anairplane I'm flying in actually lands in the new time zone. Tome, remaining on the old time until we're back on the ground issimply a technique for keeping the plane in the air — a techniquethat has so far proven effective. Do I personally believe in theEvil Eye? Not exactly. All right, maybe a little bit.
Once, at the annual antiquarian book fair of PS 3, theslightly cockamamie and ultimately splendid Greenwich Villagegrade school that both of our girls attended after the wordsnot hands nursery school, I happened upon a thick, serious-lookingEnglish-Yiddish dictionary. Even though Spanish andRussian and Cantonese have become more common than Yiddishin New York subways, Yiddish remains for New Yorkersthe language of contention. I've always thought that visitors tothe city should be given Yiddish phrase books by the New YorkConvention and Visitors Bureau, except that instead of havingphrases like "Could you please direct me to the nearest postoffice?" the New York phrase book would have phrases like"May boils break out on your liver!" or "May streetcars growin the back of your throat!" At the time I spotted this dictionary,I owned two English-Yiddish dictionaries — Leo Rosten's Joys ofYiddish and a volume called Dictionary Shmictionary — butboth of them are antic and anecdotal. I had never seen a seriousEnglish-Yiddish dictionary. I started leafing through it, andcame to the word mees, which means ugly. (An ugly person isa meeskeit, rhyming with "geese bite"; there's a song by thatname in Cabaret.) The first definition offered was, not surprisingly,"ugly." The second definition was "beautiful." That definitionwas followed by the explanation, in parentheses: "so asto fool the Evil Eye."
I found myself with two immediate responses. One was"What a language!" It's no wonder that in New York Irish copsand Bangladeshi cabdrivers and Dominican grocers feel theneed to employ it in stressful moments. It's no wonder so manypeople are horrified at the prospect of its dying out. In whatother language could one word mean both ugly and beautiful?My other response was that the custom alluded to by the seconddefinition — calling someone who's beautiful, particularly abeautiful child, a meeskeit just in case the Evil Eye happens tobe tuned in — might not be such a bad idea. As the advertisementsfor the New York State Lottery say, "Hey, you neverknow."
So have I never said anything about my children that mighttempt the Evil Eye? It has to be said that there is a certainamount of tension between respect for the power of the EvilEye and a parent's natural inclination to brag about his children.I happen to come from a tradition of bragging aboutchildren. My father — a mild-mannered man who wouldn'thave struck anyone as a boaster or a show-off — used to travel alot after he was more or less retired, and he often said to othertravelers he met, "I'll show you a picture of my grandchildrenif you promise that you won't go home and throw rocks at yourown grandchildren." I've always been suspicious of parents whodon't brag about their children. (When it comes to parents whoroutinely put down their children in conversations with casualacquaintances, I'm more than just suspicious. I think theyshould be arrested; if no charges stick, at least they'd have achance of being roughed up at the station house.) If I run intosomeone who has a small child and is not carrying pictures, Istart to wonder. "Has the kid turned mean and ugly, or what?"I ask. When someone I know becomes the father of a girl, Isend him a sign that a kind man I knew in Tampa printed forme on a press he kept in his garage. On a light blue backgroundis a quotation we've credited to President Franklin Pierce (hehad so few): "Anyone who is not objectionable about his daughteris a pervert." Some of the new fathers put the sign on theiroffice wall. Some of them use it as the center of a montagewhose other elements are pictures of their daughter. Either way,it functions as an easement for excessive bragging.
I've tried to show some restraint, particularly in print. (TheEvil Eye is known to be a voracious reader.) I haven't alwaysmanaged. When Abigail was about six months old, Alice and Iwent to a dinner party on the West Side and were drawn intoa conversation with other parents about whether it was safe forpeople who lived in Manhattan to leave a baby in a carriageon the sidewalk for just a few seconds while ducking into astore for, say, a newspaper. Many years later, there was a briefflutter of publicity in New York about two or three incidents ofEuropean visitors leaving their children unattended — in onecase, in a baby carriage outside a bar — while they went abouttheir business, only to have concerned New Yorkers call 911.Commentators took the occasion to point out that Europeansdid not have the intense interest Americans do in the protectionand entertainment of children — meaning that, depending onthe way you look at it, either Europe is a more mature cultureor Europeans miss out on a lot of fun. One of the Europeanparents involved said that leaving your baby in a carriage outsidea saloon was common practice in Copenhagen, Denmark,a position that was answered in one of the tabloids under theheadline "From the Folks Who Brought You Flimsy Furniture."
When the subject came up at the dinner party, I did notclaim any cultural differences between the Village and theWest Side. I said that it seemed to me to depend on the qualityof the baby. "It would probably be O.K. if you had an ordinarybaby," I heard myself saying. The other parents stared at me.It dawned on me that not many of them thought they hadordinary babies. Having already begun, though, I had to explainthat a peek at my daughter in a baby carriage could triggerlatent kidnapping instincts in the most saintly passerby. If I hadalready come across the English-Yiddish dictionary, I supposeI would have ended my explanation by winking at them conspiratoriallyand saying, "You see, she's a real meeskeit." If thecontretemps involving the baby left outside of the bar hadalready taken place, I suppose I might have added, "The pointis not that the mother couldn't have been much of a motherbut that the baby couldn't have been much of a baby."
The perils inherent in being self-satisfied about your familyare not limited to the Evil Eye. The Tiny Deflator is also athreat — that small voice from the backseat that makes yourealize that what you just said was, upon reflection, pretentiousor silly or, if we're being absolutely literal about it, not strictlytrue. Almost all children can take the role of the Tiny Deflator,although some play it better than others. It may help to be fromthe Planet Green. When our daughters were on the edge ofbeing old enough to take to the ballet, we decided they mightlike a Sunday matinee program at Lincoln Center that includedParade — a jolly piece, famous for its backdrops by Picasso. Asit turned out, we were right. The girls were entranced. Nobodygot restless or cranky, not even me. After the performance, Alicethought of going to the Seagram Building, so that we couldshow Abigail and Sarah the Picasso backdrop in the Four Seasonsrestaurant. We all loved that, too. After the viewing, wewent downstairs to the Brasserie, the restaurant on the groundfloor, and had tea — which is to say, if it was a typical tea inour family in that era, Alice had tea, the girls had ice creamand I had a scotch. The girls, I have to say, were looking particularlyfetching in their special-event clothes. It was a periodwhen they looked so fetching in their special-event clothes thatsome neighbors we hardly knew who were holding a weddingin the courtyard next to our house asked if our daughters couldcome to the ceremony in some rather Victorian dresses the girlsthen had — acting as what people in New Orleans sometimescall scene-boosters. Just as our tea was ending, Sarah suddenlysaid, "You know, our family is different from other families."
Alice beamed. I may have beamed myself. I'm not much ofa beamer, but it was, I thought, a special moment. I supposeAlice and I had been thinking thoughts not that far removedfrom what Sarah had expressed. We were feeling fortunate.
"Some families put a lot of toothpaste on their toothbrushes,"Sarah continued. "But in our family, we don't put very much."The beams must have faded involuntarily, and Sarah must havenoticed. "Also," she began, trying to save the moment, "ourfamily has a special tuna fish recipe."
Twenty years or so after that outing, our entire family was ina hospital room, listening to the regimen the doctor expectedme to follow when I went home to continue recuperating fromheart bypass surgery — how often I was to nap, how I was toavoid long periods at my desk. We all nodded soberly. Whenhe had finished, I tried to look both brave and prudent. ThenAbigail said, "I hate to say it, Daddy, but it's hard to see justhow that differs from your regular routine." A Tiny Deflator,all grown up.