top of page

"Call Me Jim" Prelude

Daddy loved Bach. I hadn’t remembered this. I remembered his collection of 78’s, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, Bix Beiderbecke, sadly all gone, even the ones which hadn’t been broken by the cleaning lady. (My mother always referred to her as a “domestic worker.” She could be so ahead-of-her-time politically correct). They had them in a cardboard box on the floo


I remember my trip with Daddy to the city, to a specialty record store when he bought his first Miles Davis record. Daddy didn’t even know Miles’ name at that point. He just asked the clerk for the “new Dizzy”. We still have that LP, in a yellow sleeve with a picture of Miles on the jacket. Our records are all upstairs in boxes. We haven’t had a working turntable in years.


And there, too, are all his Bach. Boxed sets of the Brandenburgs and the Six Orchestral Suites, now probably my favorite music, -- I seem to have magically settled in the Baroque, -- and the Casals recording of the six Cello Suites. Daddy loved Casals too, as much for his politics as for his musicianship.


I took one classical album with me when I went off to Carleton. Along with my jazz and folk albums was Daddy’s copy of Glenn Gould’s first recording of the Goldberg Variations. That album is in the box upstairs too.


By the time I was born, everyone called my father “Jim,” except me. I called him “Daddy”. And his sisters. They always called him “Lionel”, and he did always sign his paintings, “Lionel Byalin” or "LB."


Daddy never talked to me about why he changed his name. I never heard any stories from my mother or his sisters. He never gave really any indication that he thought calling himself “Jim” was important, but this morning on my cushion, I remembered him talking to me about Tristram Shandy.


For years, I have been saying that Moby Dick was his favorite book, but now I am thinking “maybe not.” Maybe Tristram Shandy was his favorite. Maybe I just thought it made a better story that despite all his cajoling I had never managed to read Moby Dick while I’ve read Tristram Shandy twice, once in high school and again in Owen Jenkins’ class, “The Age of Johnson.” The readings from that semester which stand out were the novels, Tom Jones, Clarissa, and Tristram Shandy.


Owen was my best, most exciting undergraduate teacher. I went on to take all the courses he taught. “Advanced Rhetoric”. “Literary Criticism.” I became an English major because of Owen.


I asked to meet with him after the Age of Johnson ended. I had come to Carleton expecting to major in math. I had probably gotten in on the basis of my math SAT scores. I was certainly no academic standout in high school, had barely made the cut for National Honor Society.


Math and Economics


Fortuitously, a high school math teacher, Edmund Fontanella, had pointed me toward Carleton. In occupied Italy at the end of World War II, Fontanella had been the army officer in charge of the math department at the Army school in Milan. One of the civilian math teachers was K.O. May. By the time I was applying to college, May was the chair of the Carleton math department.


I didn’t last long as a math major. I did okay in first semester calculus, 8 AM classes, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, in a darkened auditorium. May lectured from the podium, writing on a machine in front of him which projected his equations onto the giant screen behind him.

Equation after equation.


In the darkness, I would doze but somehow did well enough to be invited into the special advanced class for second semester calculus, a very small class with a very nice guy professor, Sy Schuster. He would have the class over to his house. But the other kids in the class were real math wizards. These were the future math majors. This was no place for me.


I thought then, “Economics.” This seemed a possible way to go, a way into social action. Most of the Carleton radicals in those days were Econ majors. A group of them led by Jack Barnes, born with a left arm that ended at the elbow, known to the college wags as “Er,” the left winger without a left wing, were spearheading Fair Play for Cuba. I joined. After graduation, Jack and his gang would go on to become leaders for many years in the Socialist Workers Party.


But I hated economics. The first semester was all microeconomics, the economics of the firm. Years later, as we were building our network of charter schools, I wished I had paid more attention. All I remember was that Paul Samuelson, the MIT professor who had authored our textbook, had gotten very rich. It seemed that every beginning Econ student in the country had to buy a copy of his book. I hated the course so much that I never took Econ II even though at Carleton you had to take the second semester in order to get credit for the first.


It was in that mood that I went into see Jenkins in his office for the first time.


Maybe English


“Do you think I should major in English?”


“I don’t see that you have any choice. We are the only ones who will understand when you don’t read assignments that you are not interested in.”


The only remaining alternative was philosophy. My Ethics course with David Sipfle was the best course of my freshman year. It seemed that everything we read, -- Kant and Kierkegaard stand out, -- was life changing.


Around the same time that I met with Owen, I met with the chair of the Philosophy Department, Martin Eshelman. Martin thought I should major in philosophy. He loved to study philosophy, and he shared the excitement he felt as un undergraduate himself, plunging into the history of philosophy. He took meticulous notes on all that he was reading, and he described how he used different color inks to organize his notes, underlining the schools of philosophy in, let’s say, red and individual philosophers in blue and their key ideas in green. He was so excited by the practice.


Martin felt I would love it too, but the obsessiveness of it left me cold. Owen’s remark that “we’re the only ones who will understand when you don’t read what doesn’t interest you,” spoke to me.


I became an English major, although I minored in philosophy. And on some level, I have always wanted to be a philosopher.


A few years ago when I had begun blogging and was recalling my best teachers at each level, thinking of Owen, I had thought, “I need to write to him and tell him how much he meant to me.” Only then did I find out that I was too late, that he had passed in 2002.


Perhaps Owen’s most memorable line came during the Age of Johnson course. Talking about the novels we had been reading, he remarked that “Tom Jones was the greatest 18th century novel, Clarissa the greatest 19th century novel, and Tristram Shandy the greatest 20th century novel.” All three were published in a span of ten years between 1748 and 1759.


Daddy had been right in his assessment of Tristram which until the Winter of my sophomore year had, as far as I could tell, never been read by anyone other than daddy and me.


Daddy’s favorite Tristram Shandy story, which I knew by heart from his re-tellings long before I ever heard it from Laurence Sterne concerned the accident of Tristram’s conception. Daddy loved the fact that Tristram begins the story of his life from that crucial moment when, just at conception, Tristram’s mother asks his father if he has remembered to wind the clock.


For Tristram’s father, this momentary distraction threatens to throw a cloud over the life of his yet unborn son. Powerful magic is needed to reverse this misfortune. The antidote his father believes is to be found in the right name, and after considerable effort he believes he has found it.


“Trismegistus.” That should do the trick.


But fate was to undo his plans. At the crucial moment in the Baptism, the pastor flubs his lines. Out of his mouth comes not “Trismegistus.”


“Tristram.”


For the father, his son’s fate is sadly sealed.


The Power of a Name


Daddy never told me the story of how he became “Jim”. This was really a very notable omission because he was such a storyteller. But he did tell the “Tristram” story many times. Names are powerful, he seemed to be saying.


I still haven’t read Moby Dick, but I am thinking now, “Maybe I should.” Actually read it. All the way through. I have tried so many times I probably own three different copies, but I never got beyond the first few chapters. I barely remember anything beyond the first sentence, but that sentence has always struck me as perhaps the best first sentence in English literature.


“Call me Ishmael.”


For months, this blog has been percolating, part of a series of blogs, “What’s in a Name?” And from the beginning this section has been “Call me Jim,” the Melville echo very much present. But it is only in the last month that I have begun to catch a deeper significance. Purely by accident.


This Fall, Morri is in an interdisciplinary, honors seminar on something like “Medieval Concepts of Love.” According to Morri, the professor seems to know a lot about a lot of things although not always so clearly relevant to the assigned readings. She had happened to reference the “Abraham” section of Genesis. The Old Testament remains one of the big lacunae in my education.


It seems that all that I know about Abraham is what I learned from Kierkegaard in my freshman Ethics class. A few years ago, I had read much of Fox’s translation of Genesis and had even gotten into Exodus, but I had read it like a novel. I hadn’t plunged in as I might to a collection of koans.


Last month, inspired by Morri, I had started to re-read Genesis. And, Wow. Here is the story of Ishmael and of the importance of names and of the giving and taking of new names. There in Genesis (17:5), Avram is given a new name, “Avraham,” a sign of the covenant between Avraham and God, and Sarai, his wife, is given a new name as well, “Sarah.”


There it is: the giving/taking of a new name to mark the accepting of a covenant.


The story continues: Avraham and Sarah are both ridiculously old to have a child, but God promises a child who will be the founder of great nations. What is to happen then to Avraham’s out-of-wedlock son. As the story goes, God will look after him but he is left to wonder. What’s the name of the bastard? “Ishmael.”


How strange. Maybe Moby Dick was Daddy’s favorite novel.


Strange how struck I have always been by that opening sentence.


“Call me Ishmael.”


Daddy never told me the story of how he became “Jim”. But it was left to me to figure out what “Jim” meant. I have no idea if he had seen these connections, just leaving them for me to find so many years later.

34 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page