Saturday, January 14, 2006

Moldy Oldies...

It occurs to me that the new Vent format, location and incoming links (thank you Mr. Konrath) may have brought new visitors to the site. If you’re a recent arrival, I thought you might enjoy this little blast from the past. If you’ve been around for a while, you might enjoy reading it again anyway.

So, here’s a little number I like to call:

Don't Call Me Darling...

In my day job, I talk to a lot of people. I speak to customers at the counter, converse with folks on the phone and have long thoughtful discussions with my staff (which shouldn't be confused with my house-bound staff discussions, which occur more frequently the older I get and tend to cross the boundary of discussion and venture into pleading, but that's a different Vent). I consider myself a gregarious person-a reasonable classification when one considers the number of book buyers who loiter about my store hoping to catch one of my frequent discourses on the nature of insanity- but lately I find myself grimacing when approaching a customer or answering the telephone.

Especially if polyester is involved.

My mother put a great deal of thought into naming me. For those who might have wondered, the M. at the beginning of my signature stands for Mark, a name only used in reference to me by elementary school contemporaries and telemarketers. Even Mom, who saddled me with the moniker, never called me Mark, not even in moments of furious rage, a situation usually requiring the parental use of first, middle and last names. As a child, I was Stevie; as an adult, I'm Steve. Before my writing career, there were only two people who regularly addressed me as Stephen: My aforementioned mother and my oft-mentioned ex, and as I've explained to my employees who field phone calls for me, it's very easy to tell the two apart.

And if I may be allowed a small digression, the correct pronunciation of STEPHEN is STEVEN. Only in Bavaria is it acceptable to pronounce it STEFAN no matter what Big Bird and Grover taught you about the PH=F equation. There are exceptions to every rule and after all, readers aren't chomping at the literary bit awaiting the latest Dark Tower installment by STEFAN King, although I'm asked for it several times a month.

But this isn't a Vent about pronunciation either.

Every name has a diminutive and every diminutive has a root name it's derived from. Elizabeth becomes Liz or Beth; Alexander gets shortened to Alex or Lex or more recently Xander, and Richard -for some obscure reason probably having to do with the negative qualities of a universally known and universally disliked Richard- becomes Dick. We won't even go into the John-Jack or Margaret-Peg conundrum, because frankly, neither Jack nor Peg has the comic possibilities of Dick.

However, Jack and Peg used in conjunction with Dick is an untapped vein of comedic gold, but unfortunately, a topic for another day.

Proper etiquette requires the use of a person's full name until such time as permission (either explicit or implied) is given to use that person's preferred diminutive. When I receive e-mails from readers, the first one invariably uses the salutation of Stephen (except for the ones addressed to Mr. Lukac which -while registering high on the Respect-O-Meter- freak me right the hell out). Once I've replied with a casual Steve appended to the bottom of my e-mail, future correspondence acquires the necessary tone, and we're both happy.

Taking the diminutive dilemma a step further, I've developed the unusual habit of lengthening short first names and shortening long first names when addressing friends and associates. I'm not sure if this is an unexpected manifestation of my muse or a symptom of my desire to re-shape the world according to my own twisted design, but the identification of this trait has done nothing to curb it. I do however, now warn new employees of its existence, which sufficiently prepares them for their new identity and alleviates any confusion generated by my referring to Assistant Manager Penny as Penelope.

And while there may be no mnemonic pedigree connecting Penny and Penelope, at least it makes more sense than Margaret-Peg and has successfully steered this Vent back into the bookstore where it belongs.

As a result of my parents' tutelage, customers at my counter are addressed as Sir or Ma'am unless we've developed a rapport over the years and assuming I remember their names (a skill my formidable memory for all things obscure seems unable to learn). Thanks to the plastic pin I wear, they always know to address me as Steve. It's a good system, unless I happen to pick up the wrong name-tag in the morning and spend the day masquerading as Peggy (which is not, in this case, short for Margaret).

Then what causes my recent grimacing? What sends a confirmed people person into spasms of hesitant shyness? What sets my teeth to grinding with a force sufficient to undo all the dentistry inflicted upon me in recent weeks while my nerves are cradled in an overly-generous dose of prescribed Valium and my mouth is numbed by a Gatling gun hypodermic dispensing gallons of Novocain?

Having my greeting of "How can I help you today ma'am?" responded to with a nasal "Sweetie, I'm looking for a book," a muffled "Honey, I'm here to pick up my order," or a strained "Darling, where's the nearest bathroom?"

This annoys the shit out of me.

I know men have inflicted this sort of torture on women for years and some testicularly burdened misanthropes continue to perpetuate the atrocity, but I'm not one of them, so I'd appreciate not being stuck with the check for my predecessors' feast at the sexist buffet. I'm required to poke holes in every shirt I own in order to be easily identifiable as an employee; I'd appreciate it if everyone who didn't get the memo clarifying that just because an article of clothing comes in double-digit sizes doesn't mean it should be worn in public would take the time to read the label affixed to my chest and address me accordingly. After all, it's a bookstore; if you don't like to read, then why are you here?

My mother gets to call me sweetheart. She gets to call me whatever she wants. Nine months of having her kidneys used as my footstool earns her that prerogative. My wife calls me Honey, which is also my favorite name for her. "Honey" has a special status in my lexicon; at no time in my life has there been more than one. Sweetie, kiddo, darlin', and hon are all acceptable appellations after reasonable exposure and a certain degree of camaraderie. I don't even mind babe; it's been known to pepper my speech quite heavily at times, so why would I object?

I'm making a new rule. I'm exercising Head of Steve's World authority and issuing the following decree, which is non-negotiable and hereafter inviolate.

If you call me Darling, I get to see you naked.

I figure I'll be gouging my eyes out soon.

But then again, you'll have this...

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