A Thank You Note

Has anyone produced a list of the best of 2015’s “Best of …” lists? No? Anyone? This won’t be that. First, a thank you.

Thank you to everyone who reads this website, even if this post is the first one by me that you have seen: Thank you. If The Gad About Town receives its usual number of visitors today, one of you might give this site the 34,000th view it has received in 2015. More than 18,000 visitors have read or at least gazed at almost 34,000 things here. That stuns me.
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Why Ask Why?

From 1995 till 1997, I wrote a humor column, “The Gad About Town,” for a great weekly newspaper in Sullivan County, New York. (I still read it online.) It held the distinction of being the only column in the newspaper that did not generate even one letter from readers. Another editorial columnist, a genial elderly man, wrote the most innocuous weekly pieces and received the most vituperative letters disagreeing with everything he wrote. I admired that this only amused him.

I did create one controversy, once: our music columnist used his own space one week to disagree with me and take me to task about something I had written the week before. Since he could have written a letter to the editor complaining about me and also submitted his usual column, but chose to sacrifice his space to rebut me, I became skeptical about his music suggestions. (I believe he is still writing for the paper and I am here, writing for no pay two decades later, so I think we can safely say that he won in the long run.)
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Snow: A Five Photos, Five Stories … uh, Story

The photo above was taken on November 26, 2014. The coordinates: 41°24′07″N 74°19′22″W, which if you have a globe, direct you to Goshen, New York. I live a 10-minute drive from this spot.

In “Connect the Colors,” I wrote, “Perception may be the most unique and personal portion of human experience—or it may be the most identical; either way, we do not have a means of testing it, except based on anecdotes from individuals. Perhaps strawberries taste the same for you as they do for me, or they do not.” Perhaps an exception can be made to this perception about perception: the weather. Maybe we all feel it the same.
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Two Awards, Plus a Film Plug

About two years ago, before this blog was launched, an online publication presented without any introduction a short film that I could not stop watching. It was an insomniac night and I no longer remember the name of the publication that made the insomnia worthwhile. (Buzzfeed, perhaps?) I think the only thing the publication said about it was that it was “narrated by Siri,” the iPhone voice, and that it was weird.
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Everyone Wins

I’m a dope. If an acceptance speech was required or expected, I did not deliver one. The one time an award was given to me at a real awards ceremony, I dashed from my seat upon hearing my name, ran to the front of the hotel ballroom, paused long enough to collect the plaque (long since lost), looked at it long enough to see that my name was in fact etched on its surface, and dashed back to my newspaper’s table. The presenters were not looked at long enough for their faces to be retained in my memory.

I grabbed that thing as if I expected the membership of the New York Press Association to demand an instant recount. As if someone had clicked start on a stopwatch. It was not my plan to turn into Carl Lewis and hurdle the tables of our rival newspapers, but something snapped. It was 1997 and I still could run, but I lived a life in which I did not expect good things, so when good things came I was not “pleasantly surprised” as I like to be now, I was shocked into feeling like I was getting away with something that I clearly did not deserve.

I reprinted the column here in December; it was called “The New Wave“; the link is to it.
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If You’re Not a Part of the Solution …

The bitter angels of our nature are sometimes easier to hear. Sometimes, the words chosen and spoken by the “better angels of our nature,” the peace-lovers among us, are heard by the bitter angels as bitter. That is insidious.

When President Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, from which we get the phrase, “better angels of our nature,” there was little he could have said or done that would have averted the Civil War; there was no guarantee the war was going to happen, but enough people were looking for the fight rather than looking for areas of agreement that the war was minutes instead of hours or months away. (Some states wanted to leave—and had already formed a new country—and the remaining states did not want them to leave but did not want them to stay in the Union with slavery as a part of their economy, so there were few areas of agreement.) Once an anti-slavery, pro-Union Republican (a new political party) was elected president, secession began, and war looked ever closer.

Lincoln dedicated his speech to explaining that secession was logically impossible, since a Union is a union, and promising that the federal government would not fire unless fired upon (which happened a couple weeks later, at Fort Sumter).

He concluded his address with an emotionally stirring paragraph, beginning with this plaintive sentence: “I am loath to close.” He did not want to end the speech. It was almost like he believed that, the longer he talked, the longer the Union would remain. But he went ahead and finished with these famous words:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

There was no response from the states that had seceded, official or otherwise, until the attack on Fort Sumter. That was their reply, and then the war was on. Those southern newspapers that deigned to report on the new president’s first speech focused on his “threats” (their word) to preserve the Union and ignored or insulted the concluding sentences. Northern newspapers apparently highlighted the “better angels” passage.

(I have an acquaintance who believes himself to be a Southerner more than an American and refuses to allow pennies in his house, because “that man” is depicted on them. It would be comical, except for it not being funny at all.)

In her book, “Abraham Lincoln the Orator,” a Binghamton University scholar named Lois Einhorn writes about the first inaugural address and the marked difference in reactions to it from North and South:

Selective listening, in effect, means that people hear what they expect and perhaps want to hear. All people listen selectively, hearing only part of any message. In the case of Lincoln’s Inaugural, one could expect a great deal of selective listening because the situation was marked by a high degree of prejudice and because Lincoln had said little to counter these prejudiced views. Many of the editorials evaluating the Inaugural Address support the view that selective listening and selective perception help account for the divergent reactions to the speech. Northern and Southern editorials tended to quote different portions of the speech: Northern editorials usually quoted the speech’s conciliatory peroration, while Southern editorials usually quoted Lincoln’s forceful statements about how he would treat the South.

“Selective listening” is an enormous phrase. I saw it in all its power recently. A friend who was important to me started to express opinions that I found offensive; I struggled to find the words to express my discomfort—this friend was not attacking me personally, after all, so why complain? There must be some reason behind what I felt was ugliness coming from my friend, I thought. I wrote to him, explained that I was not going to attempt to change his opinion, that I did not need an explanation in return nor did I want a debate, but that I simply needed to express my discomfort and for that to be accepted so we could move on to happier conversations. Even if my friend simply expressed discomfort with my discomfort, I would have been fine. (“Agree to disagree,” as they say.)

I hoped my better angels were present. The issue happened to be about social unfairness and race and recent events in the news, an issue I have written about before—in “Guilty of White” —and will again, and my friend responded with a photo of himself with people of color, as if such a thing could even be a response. (I restrained myself and did not write this: “Okay, fine. You have African-American friends. Have you shared with them what I have been reading from you? How well has that been going?”) A joke that I will not reprint followed from my friend; it was at about the same level of emotional maturity as not allowing pennies in one’s house. I have walked away from that friendship, grateful that I learned a lesson, but I am still not certain what that lesson was or is, because this is a friend who tended (tends) to find better angels in almost every circumstance. I was and am confused.

My friend read my expression of discomfort as an attack that needed to be rebuffed; it is sad. Was I selectively hearing his anger as hate? Was he selectively hearing me attacking him? Both at the same time?

There is a line I can not cross just so I can say that I am friends with all sorts of individuals, even intolerant people who insist on being tolerated.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 16 asks, “Do you have a good friend or close relative with whom you disagree on a major issue (political, personal, cultural)? What’s the issue, and how do you make the relationship work?”

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Tapping into ‘Echo Spring’

Every alcoholic has a collection of anecdotes that can be simultaneously heartbreaking, outrageous, and hilarious. Perhaps they are hilarious only to fellow alcoholics; perhaps they can not even be listened to by outsiders. For an outsider, most alcoholic anecdotes may as well conclude with the same punchline, an interchangeable rubber-stamped ending: “And then I got away with it again.” Or, “I didn’t die that time, either.” And then comes the next hair-raising—or eyebrow-raising—tale.

There are two standard anecdotes, one usually about outrageous behavior, and another about the pit at the end of the road. Almost everyone who drinks has a few of the first sort of story.

“I thought things were going great and I was happy to be sober and proud to be in recovery, but I kept having these urges. I was in a good mood and I talked about the urges and people helped me understand. And now it’s two weeks later and I don’t remember these two weeks.” That is the second kind of story; I heard it from someone today. The speaker had “picked up,” which is recovery-speak for “drank.” He “went out” is another phrase.

In her 2013 book, The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing quotes Andrew Turnbull’s biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured above):

He describes Fitzgerald in his room at the Grove Park Inn making endless lists “of cavalry officers, athletes, cities, popular tunes. Later, he realized that he had been witnessing the disintegration of his own personality and likened the sensation to that of a man standing at twilight on a deserted range with an empty rifle in his hands and the targets down.” The images are drawn from Fitzgerald’s own account in “The Crack-up,” but somehow have more impact here. (Laing, 84)

That is the second kind of story, too.

Towards the end of my drinking, but really, nowhere near the end, I remember extemporizing for several hours straight about NASCAR to a friend. Now, I am a racing fan so I have a fan’s knowledge base, but I remember feeling like I had turned into an obsessed young boy who has discovered the backside of his baseball cards and wants to read off every single statistic out loud to everyone. And the moment came from nowhere. It was possibly a symptom of delirium tremens, but I recall feeling safe in settled facts and unsafe in the open field of conversation. The subject matter of the facts was chosen at random, by me, and could have been any other topic area, but I cleverly picked one that none of my friends shared enthusiasm for. There could be no conversation. For my friend, it must have felt like what Turnbull described about watching Fitzgerald as I rattled off lists of winners and possible routes to the championship for certain race teams. For hours. (“Cavalry officers, athletes, cities.”) I also remember that I detected an intervention in my future and I figured that if I spoke continuously, no intervention could happen. Instead, I probably hastened one.

That is the second kind of story. My brain was firing blanks, a lot of them in rapid succession, as confidently as my brain had ever fired off substantive thoughts in graduate school classes or in front of classrooms, but blanks anyway. A line from a Robert Lowell poem, “Eye and Tooth,” haunted me: “I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.”

Laing’s book mixes travel narrative, expository journalism, and literary biography in pursuit of a personal answer to a large question: “I wanted to know what made a person drink and what it did to them. More specifically, I wanted to know why writers drink, and what effect this stew of spirits has had upon the body of literature itself.” She picks six male, American, Twentieth-century, writers—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver—as her biographical subjects, even though she is young, British, female. These figures give her sufficient distance to look more closely at the subject; she alludes to being raised in a house “under the rule of alcohol.” She adds, “There are some things that one can’t address at home,” and decides to travel to America.

What I wanted was to discover how each of these men—and along the way, some of the many others who have suffered from the disease—experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge. (Laing, 12)

(The ‘Echo Spring’ of her title comes from Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” in which Brick, to get away from Big Daddy, excuses himself. Big Daddy asks, “Where you goin’?” and Brick replies, memorably, “I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.” Echo Spring is his brand of bourbon and the nickname for the liquor cabinet holding it.)

It is the first kind of story, the outrageous anecdote, the prurient tale, that Laing says that she wants avoid, and she successfully does; the hair-raising bits are kept to a minimum, and, when seen, sketched very deftly, as on page 82: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.” That was Fitzgerald at his hijinks-loving “best.” Fitzgerald’s fellow famous Baltimoran appears in the next sentence, at his most pruriently judgmental. “According to Mencken, [Fitzgerald] shocked a Baltimore dinner party ‘by arising at the dinner table and taking down his pantaloons, exposing his gospel pipe.'”

Laing finds and expresses the empathy that can be found in Fitzgerald’s apparent fondness for drunkenly dropping trou, though, and writes about the mask that baldly revealing oneself can prove to be: “Undressing is an act of concealment sometimes. You can yank down your pants and show off your gospel pipe and still be a man in mortal terror of revealing who you are.” An alcoholic will shock to prevent a embarrassing conversation about his drinking.

It is that mortal terror that animates much addiction and certainly contributed to the art these six writers created; to her credit, Laing’s empathy is clear-eyed and clear-hearted and she does not look for redemption where there is none. That second kind of story is too heart-breaking, after all, and each of her six writers lived it. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Berryman did not survive theirs.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 14 asks, “Open your nearest book to page 82. Take the third full sentence on the page, and work it into a post somehow.” This was it: “Once, in the 1920s, he stripped to his underclothes in the audience of a play.”

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