#FreeRaif, Week 5

For the fourth week in a row, Raif Badawi, a writer in Saudi Arabia, was not whipped fifty times yesterday as part of his public punishment for insulting his nation’s official religion in his blog. No one is breathing a sigh of relief that this counts as sparing him, or that he is about to be freed.

Amnesty International broke the news this morning via Twitter:

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Getting Better, One Day at a Time

A friend told me about eating out with her “sarcastic” friend—we all have one—when they saw a toddler, bundled up in winter layers, bounce off a closed glass door and fall because the child had not perceived the door.

The sarcastic friend said, sotto voce, “Get used to that, kid.”

Life is a clear, freshly cleaned, plate glass door that no one notices is a door, even with a shiny metal door handle at every-door-you’ve-ever-seen’s-door-handle-height on it, because we are too busy thinking about life until someone bonks into it. Loudly.

When are we too young to learn that? or too old to be reminded?

I bonked into my own life, repeatedly. Another friend has an analogy: Whenever he lived like he thought he was the “captain of his own ship,” he would run it aground, back it up, direct it in what he thought was a new direction, fire up the engines and re-launch full speed ahead, only to find that it was not a new direction at all and he had re-grounded it in the same spot, but deeper in the muck.

Ten years ago, my SMA symptoms were probably beginning to manifest themselves but I was still walking everywhere, and even if I did notice any changes I was not someone who was going to say anything out loud about them to another human being. I had terrible leg cramps. My right leg would spasm out from under me if I stood still for long, but it had done that for years; my reflexes would catch me and pop me back into place. That happens to everyone, right? I fell in my own apartment, a single-level, one bedroom, hard-to-fall-down-in apartment and twisted that ankle sometime in 2004. SMA? or something else?

It is possible it was my leg misfiring, a neuromuscular something-or-other, as well as something else. In 2004, I was still active in another disease, alcoholism; that stumble that I mentioned is not something that I actually remember as I was in a brownout that night, an ambulatory blackout. I remember awaking in pain and with a foot too swollen to put a shoe on it. Ice and aspirin and I was fine within days or never.

AA_Anniversary_Medallion_Cobalt_BlueHad my alcoholism not gone into remission four and a half years ago through a lot of work, I would not: be writing; know about SMA; know that I was born with SMA; or be walking at all, probably. I would not have the income that I have (Social Security Disability), which is a very small stipend but it is regular; I would not know eighty percent of the people I now call friends; I would not be in the relationship that has outlasted the few relationships I had ever adventured my way into and out of over the years.

I would not be walking because I would not know what was happening, would not have complained to anyone, much less a doctor, and probably would be on a walker by now instead of a cane. I would have silently suffered with a fear that my condition was one I “had drunk myself into,” which would probably frequently be a thought immediately preceding another guilt-riddled binge. (SMA is a genetic disease, and its symptoms would have appeared when they did even if I had been a teetotalling professional athlete.) When I was active, I liked feeling bad, feeling guilty, feeling self-pity, even, because I liked the relief for those feelings that I had in a bottle. I enjoyed feelings, good and bad, only insofar as I could suppress them.

Alcoholism is a disease, a psychological and physical one, in which craving supplants all emotions and that emotion directs all actions. All addictions seem to share that simple self-centered rule and draw vitality from this circular emotional logic. The solution is simple but difficult; for me it involved getting involved with life, doing for others, with others, and noticing that I am not the center of the universe and that you all are not my creations, figments of my imagination. The trick was getting me to want that, to notice that I did not know or had forgotten all this.

About ten years ago, maybe eleven, I tried to contact my future self, the 2014 edition of me with several years of sobriety. I called the A.A. hotline and some nice person listened to me for a bit and then he told me he would get me in the morning and bring me to a meeting. I of course did not go. The first step in recovery is to admit “we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I knew my life was becoming a wreck already, even with a good job, but … I knew nothing else. Ten years ago I was on Step Zero—I knew that MY life was wrong somehow—but I did not come into recovery until 2010; I do not wish those six years on anyone, even people I detest.

I do not wish SMA on anyone, even people I detest, too. The beautiful thing about bonking into real life is that the best people I know are alcoholics and addicts taking their recovery seriously and people with neuromuscular diseases—like SMA and SCA and Friedreich’s ataxia—people who expand their lives and their possibilities even as their boat changes course on them and coach me to do so, too.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 15 asks, “Present-day you meets 10-years-ago you for coffee. Share with your younger self the most challenging thing, the most rewarding thing, and the most fun thing they have to look forward to.”

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Time and Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson wrote, “He that hopes to look back hereafter with satisfaction upon past years must learn to know the present value of single minutes, and endeavor to let no particle of time fall useless to the ground.”—Rambler 108, March 30, 1751

Dr. Johnson was 41 in March of 1751 and several years into his work on his most lasting project, his Dictionary. Unlike most of the dictionaries developed for any language, and all dictionaries in English, Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was written by one man. An entire dictionary, with more than 40,000 word entries and over 100,000 literary quotations to back up and explain Johnson’s definitions and create an etymology (the study of the origin of words). It took Johnson nine years to complete it; 75 years later, Noah Webster published his own dictionary, which had 70,000 entries, took 25 years to complete, and cites Johnson throughout. The first completed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took 75 years and dozens of scholars to compile its first edition, published in 1928.

Johnson’s Dictionary is not the best one written for or in the English language—the dictionary that sits forgotten on your shelf is probably named Webster and not Johnson, and the website that you use instead of a book is also not named “Johnson.com” or something like that. Johnson’s definitions are often complete sentences and are sometimes essays on the topic inspired by the word under consideration. His treatment of the word “time,” for instance, offers fourteen different meanings for the word: “1. The measure of duration. 2. Space of time. 3. Interval. 4. Season; proper time. 5. A considerable space of duration; continuance; process of time. 6. Age; particular part of time. 7. Past time. 8. Early time. 9. Time considered as affording opportunity. 10. Particular quality of the present. 11. Particular time. 12. Hour of childbirth. 13. Repetition of any thing, or mention with reference to repetition. 14. Musical measure.” (“Time,” Johnson’s Dictionary)

Johnson offers a quote from English literature, usually the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, or Dryden, as a pertinent example for each particular definition. Sometimes he offers as many as seven quotes. For his fourteen definitions of “Time,” he uses forty-six quotes.

Samuel_Johnson

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

This project would be difficult enough to produce in our era of desktop publishing (is there an app for dictionary creation?); Johnson put together his Dictionary in his house, with workmen appearing every so often to assemble a printing press and run off some pages. He paid them out of his own pocket. His personal library, large but not comprehensive, was supplemented by books borrowed from friends. The books were so covered with his markings that they were not worth being returned, the friends remembered.

It took him nine years to complete the Dictionary, yet he had promised it in three. For the rest of his career, Johnson was ridiculed as a slow worker; he proposed to work up an edition of Shakespeare’s plays (the first ever single source, authoritative edition that would be created) in 1756 and started attracting subscribers, but by 1762 another writer took a public jibe at him: “He for subscribers baits his hook/and takes your cash, but where’s the book?” His Shakespeare was published in 1765.

While working on his Dictionary, he published a self-written, twice-weekly periodical, The Rambler, to earn a living. (In other words, he wrote a blog while working on his big project.) Then, while working on his edition of Shakespeare, he published a weekly blog, um, magazine, called The Idler.

Samuel Johnson visited the topic of time over a dozen times in those two journals, and perhaps for understandable reasons: For someone so productive and yet considered a slow worker (The Idler was so named as a joke about his avoiding the long slow work on his Shakespeare), it is likely that few writers had considered time in so many facets. Any waking hour not spent earning a living was indeed “a particle of time (dropped) useless to the ground.”

Johnson had many health issues, ranging from regular bouts with a bleak depression, which he was the first to name the “black dog”; nearsightedness that glasses did not aid (or vanity made him avoid them); a disfiguring skin condition; and Tourette syndrome, a condition that did not have a name until the late 1800s and was not considered a medical condition in Johnson’s lifetime. The tics made him seem an odd character, and he felt he had to win people over with his wit. (Asked once why he made noises, he said it was a bad habit.) His many tics and violent gesticulations are described in every contemporary account about him written by his friends, so the posthumous diagnosis seems a trustworthy one.

A year and a half before his death, he described time and its slowness in old age thus:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. … When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, […] After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 25 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 1 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

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Daily Prompt: T.M.I.

Most of us will live somewhere around 28,000 days (75 years, give or take), and it is estimated that most Americans meet three new people every day. That comes to approximately 80,000-plus people you have met or will meet in person in your life.

(Do you say a personal hello to the person who takes your money for coffee in the morning? Count that person, or start saying hello more frequently and don’t be a Scrooge.)

I have worked as a college teacher, a reporter, and as a retail salesman, and I attend various support groups through the week, so my numbers might wind up skewed a bit higher than that, so perhaps I have already met 50,000 on my way to more than 80,000.

That is a small city, 50,000, or even 80,000. It is as if I never left Poughkeepsie, New York, my hometown, and set out to shake hands with every permanent resident there, never had any other ambitions, and never left. We would call that a weird life, a not-very fulfilling one, but that number describes most of our lives. We do not meet all that many people. It is a football stadium, and not a large one.

Going back a couple generations, when a person could live an entire life in one town, which my grandmother who lived to be 98 did, a person probably met about three people a day. Maybe two-and-a-half. One of my great-grandmothers grew up in Pinsk, traveled across Europe with a baby in her arms, came through Ellis Island, and eventually lived out her years in Poughkeepsie. She probably met three people a day. We call our lives more complicated, and claim they are growing more so, but they really are not. Not in person. I do not think that this has changed by a large quantitative margin over the generations. Most of us know, truly know, only a handful of people at any moment; many of us do not even know the names of all eight of our great-grandparents.

I have not included my online life here. Not yet. According to WordPress, this blog has received over 3600 visitors from 50 countries, from some time in late January to today, at an average visitor count of 14 per day. (Since I started publishing every day, the numbers have increased; 1300 visits have been tallied in the last seven weeks.) I have exchanged personal notes with a few readers who make me blush when I think that they know my writing almost as well as I do. I hope I am an encouraging reader for writers, as well.

Until recently, I have limited my Facebook life to friends I personally know, but I have lifted that self-imposed stipulation recently and I am happy I have. I have under 400 Twitter followers and have had perhaps a dozen lengthy personal Tweet-exchanges of some depth in my three or so years on there. In my online life, as in my in-person life, thousands of encounters to find a handful of true friends I value and hope to someday meet.

When we claim that our lives are more complicated and information-packed, we are not, not most of us, speaking of our personal lives. We are reflecting that we have given ourselves the great gift of more. There are more outlets, more ways to declare to any who will read or listen that we are living a “purpose-driven life” or some other catchphrase (sorry, Rick Warren) without actually living that life. If I am telling you I am living one kind of life or another, how do I have so much time to testify to this? (There are exceptions; sometimes the testimony is a part of walking a walk.)

And every song not only has a singer but a listener, it seems. Everything we hear and read is, in its rawest sense, “information,” but not all of it is necessary. What you prepared for dinner certainly is information, and if I send you directions to my house, that is information as well. We can and will filter out each other. I can give you a virtual thumbs-up on a nice-looking meal and forget I did while doing so. You might be amused I sent those directions that we both know you will ignore.

There is a lot of noise in this world because everyone seems to have purchased a mic and an amp and kept their utility bills up-to-date. This just means good has more ways of declaring itself and so does evil. The numbers of people wanting to be heard have not changed over the centuries, the tools to be heard have.

One hopes that most of the people that we truly know and love contribute more to the information side of our lives and less to the noise.

“… Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there’s gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows …”

—”Everybody Knows,” Leonard Cohen

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 15 asks, “‘Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.’—Gertrude Stein”