I recently watched the Ben Affleck and George Clooney film adaption of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar. It’s a coming-of-age story during the 1970s and 1980 about young J.R., whose uncle steps in for the boy’s absentee dad. Uncle Charlie is the cool uncle with a sweet car who slips his nephew a few bucks, teaches him how to handle booze and butts, and to be respectful towards ladies. He imparts essential life lessons and truths while also passing on cultural artifacts. Charlie is a voracious reader who opens up his makeshift library, kindling J.R.’s intellectual spark into a full-blown love for reading and writing. We should all have an Uncle Charlie or try to be one.
As an only child and married man with no children, I once strove to be the cool uncle to at least one of my wife’s nieces and nephews. Alexandra lives closest, and my first project was to visit a beautiful summer-morning farmer’s market overlooking the Hudson River. I wanted to show her how real food is produced. We started at the pickle vendor to buy sauerkraut for her hot dog lunch later on that day. Just thinking aloud, I asked, “Alex, do you know what’s amazing about sauerkraut? It makes itself. My grandfather packed cabbage into old wine barrels, added salt, left it to ferment, and that was it.” She mustered the smile of a polite Catholic school girl. “We did the same with cucumbers to make pickles like these.” I expected a follow-up question about the difference between a half-sour and full-sour pickle, but it never came.
We continued to my favorite organic vegetable stand, where I posed her with a red-leaf lettuce bigger than her preteen head! That was fun. She laughed, and I felt like I won her back after the pickle-stand debacle. We also passed the fish stall displaying an Atlantic halibut. The fish lady offered Alex a chance to examine the beauty. Upon closer inspection, Alex came face to face with a giant flounder with both its eyes staring up at her. She froze in place. I explained that it wasn’t born that way. Halibut start off looking like any other fish, but, with maturity, the eyes migrate to the same side of their heads so they can see their world better. I don’t know if Alex had ever seen a goldfish up close, let alone a unique side-swimmer from the bottom of the sea.
Alex had enough reality for one day, and I didn’t get a chance to conclude my circle-of-life thesis as we bought hot dogs from the meat guy. The whole point of the outing was to learn that food doesn’t just magically appear on her plate, but Alex had run off to buy muffins with my wife. She would not know how my family butchered a pig after the first frost, or how we used everything the animal had to offer: skin, snout, scraps, and innards: After we rendered the fat and hung the hams, we ground what was left over, added blood and buckwheat, and stuffed it into the intestines – kishka was just one of several sausages we made. A hot dog is also a type of sausage, but it’s too complicated to make at home.
Maybe it was TMI (too much information, as the kids say), but by her age, I had experienced those grim yet joyous days when neighbors helped process each other’s pigs for the year ahead. I’m sure I cried even more than when my grandmother twisted the neck of one of our chickens I’d fed since they were chicks. Despite what most people have read on free-range egg cartons about vegetarian diets, chickens are formidable omnivores. They ate all our table scraps in addition to worms, mice, insects, and whatever they found roaming the farm. People who live off the land understand that an empty stall or coop is much more frightening than meatpacking. Ironically, chicken nuggets and hot dogs don’t seem to scare children the slightest bit – and they should be terrified of those solidified meat slurries.
I could go on and on about fermented and cultured foods like yogurt, cheeses, pickles, and sourdough bread, but few young people care about that stuff. I’m still fascinated by how stale bread was turned into dumplings, soup, and gruel when times were tough and the larder empty. It’s terms like “gruel” that get me into trouble. My old-world bits of knowledge come with a measure of unpleasantness and discomfort. I think it’s because my family lived through two World Wars fought in their backyard. There was never a shortage of depressing stories, which were a reminder to appreciate life when it was good and food was plentiful. If I couldn’t find a way to appeal to children through their stomachs, how could I be trusted to dispense my culture, especially in today’s sensitive environment with all its triggers, spoiler alerts, and content warnings?
Having spent much of my youth hanging around in the rougher sections of New York City during the 1970s and 1980s, I appreciate avant-garde, edgy, and alternative material. But, I have a sense that current standards demand I wait until my nieces and nephews are at least thirty years old for an Andy Warhol movie marathon. Warhol would be my transition to Lou Reed, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, and other Downtown types like those documented by Warhol Factory photographer Leee Black Childers in his book Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks. Now, that’s my kind of history book! I can already hear the parental chorus as if it’s in my room: “you have to collaborate with the child and explore what interests them, not the other way around!” Yes, I know, but I’m too old to appreciate 60-second TikTok dance videos, Instagram pix, and the latest phone apps. Thank goodness I discovered that my nephew was learning to play drums and had a complete kit in the basement.
He liked the band Slipknot. I’m not a fan but was excited to share a tangential interest in heavy metal music, and so I bought him a few pairs of signature Joey Jordison (1975 – 2021) drumsticks by Vic Firth as encouragement. Eventually, I would get him back to metal’s roots with Black Sabbath. When Slipknot came to town, I offered to take him. The kid had never been to a live show without his mother! Madison Square Garden was my second home by the time I was his age – he didn’t even have to fight a bigger guy to keep his assigned seat. I would ensconce him in a corporate suite and do my best to shield him from drugs, alcohol, and other scary things – this was Slipknot, after all. They wear horror-film masks and dress in prison jumpsuits.
We called for permission. Out of fear for her Cookie Puss’s safety during the twenty-minute train ride to the Garden, my sister-in-law would not allow him to attend the concert. Yes, you read correctly: his pet name is Cookie Puss (also Lil’ Puss or just plain Cookie), because when he was a toddler, his face would be covered with cookie crumbs and everyone thought it was so cute. The name also coincides with the beloved Carvel ice cream cake with frozen crunchy bits mixed inside, so it works on several levels. I could have assured his mom that the least-dangerous part of a Slipknot experience was the trip to the venue.
After a few years, my niece, Alex, finally recovered from the halibut incident and expressed interest in the Beatles. I was thrilled to get her to our house and play some of their later albums: Revolver (1966) in mono, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), and Abbey Road (1969). Maybe, I could slip in some Rolling Stones or the Who. She might as well dig through my collection for cover art that caught her eye. That’s how I discovered new records. Because she’s an intelligent, responsible teenager, Alex could play the records herself – I didn’t even have to be home. The record-listening party never materialized. I wasn’t surprised. By the time I warmed up the amp and cleaned the records, she could have previewed the entirety of Revolver on her phone in a matter of minutes. I regret that we didn’t share the experience. What would she feel and think when hearing the sadness of “Eleanor Rigby” or the death theme of “She Said She Said” for the first time? It bothers me more that she might skip around or fast-forward through the depths of an album like Revolver. Would she even make it to the psychedelic “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the best track on the whole record? I hate to think she missed that song. There could have been interesting discussions about LSD and Transcendental Meditation as mind-expanding mechanisms, as well as the influences of Ravi Shankar and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
My wife reminded me, families don’t share music like that anymore. She came from a household with three generations who played everything from Benny Goodman to Blondie, B-52’s, Beatles, and Beastie Boys. When mom and dad wanted to listen to “Saturday With Sinatra” on the radio, the entire family listened. The same happened with the sole television in most households. The last thing I wanted to watch was The Lawrence Welk Show, but I had no choice. It was long before anyone of us had personal listening and viewing devices. Now, every middle-schooler seems to be running around with iPhones and wireless headphones, accompanied by parents on their own smartphones and headphones – everyone alone in their entertainment vacuum with so many missed opportunities to create bonds and memories.
I was lucky to have several influencers who shared their music with me throughout my life. It began in the summer of 1974 with a neighbor boy who blasted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band every day for three months. A coach brought along his 8-track tapes of the Isley Brothers. An uncle played classical records through his Klipschorns. My Spanish tutor added Cuban jazz to our sessions, and my best friend’s father taught me everything about classic rock. Sure, my school friends introduced me to contemporary entertainment, but those adults made the most lasting and significant contributions. Without outside intervention, I might still be listening to The Brady Bunch records or singing along with the Lennon Sisters on Lawrence Welk show reruns.
Contrary to all the evidence, I’m really not one of those middle-aged men who complain about young people all the time, but our personal entertainment devices have destroyed attention spans, limited our patience, and isolated us. I am guilty of that myself, but I’m not as impressionable as the targeted youth market. Commerce-driven algorithms have replaced cool aunts and uncles, and for a large swath of the younger generations, disposable Instagram and TikTok “creators” have displaced songwriters, musicians, and artists. If nothing else, Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back has taught us that it takes much more than good looks and trends to create meaningful content and a permanent impact on civilization.
Although it’s easy to become discouraged with the pop culture, I’m always reassured when people discover and rediscover the Beatles more than fifty years after disbanding. Their albums are still selling, and kids are buying turntables to play retro vinyl discs found in basements and closets. My wife and I are encouraging all our nieces and nephews to watch The Beatles: Get Back, not to make them into fans but to show that fully realized art is often complex, sometimes unrewarded, and usually arduous. A kid needs a cool aunt or uncle to point out that life can be the same. I still haven’t given up hope that Alex and I will listen to my albums some day. When she’s ready, I will be there for her.
Header image: Ben Affleck as Uncle Charlie (L) with Tye Sheridan (R) in The Tender Bar. Photo courtesy of Claire Folger/© 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC.