Rule of Thumb

About six weeks ago we attended a family wedding in Minneapolis. We spent a lot of time (when not dancing, drinking or telling stories) comparing thumbs. The archetype is the fabled "Abelson Thumb," an encoding introduced into our family's gene pool by my late Uncle Murray Abelson. Murray and his wife May were closer to grandparents than aunt and uncle to me, as they filled the roles of confidantes, babysitters, and sources of life-long laughter. The family wedding was that of Murray's grandson Stephen. He's my first cousin once removed but by most appearances, he could be my younger brother.

Most appearances. Stephen has the Abelson Thumb. So do his father, his sister, and two of his first (female) cousins. The Abelson Thumb crosses gender, generational and national boundaries (Stephen was born in Canada). I do not have an Abelson thumb, being a Stern and not an Abelson, but I know what the Abelson Thumb can do.

The Abelson Thumb is short and wide, has a narrow, rectangular nail that appears to have a tenuous relationship with the rest of the thumb, and the whole thing sticks out a little bit too low or too perpendicular to the hand that feeds it. It's this thumbnail sketch that gives user interface designers at Nokia and Sony heart palpitations. It's a badge of honor among my cousins.

Murray once drove my parent's station wagon in reverse a block and a half on a side street in New York. The "One Way" signs indicated the orientation of the car, not the direction of travel. Murray wasn't looking for a parking place, but instead for 7th Avenue. If I happen to catch The Guns of Navarrone or The War Wagon on what is the equivalent of late-night UHF stations, I remember they were among his favorite movies. The Abelson Thumb carved our Thanksigiving turkeys and made a staggeringly good potato salad. Murray was a World War II veteran who, according to family legend, made a bathroom run in the middle of a caravan across the English countryside. While thumbing a ride back to his company, he was hit by a truck, and landed in the infirmary instead of on the beach at Normandy.

Murray owned only a handful of popular music albums, but the one played most frequently was Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life. He was a speciality retailer before Wall Street coined the term. Nobody was allowed into the family without passing his "inspection", which usually involved hugs and an eating test. Alissa, Stephen's wife and my newest cousin, would have passed. If Murray liked you, we all liked you, and there was no better rule of thumb.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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