Edison’s Happy New Year

Sixteen months of embarrassingly public false starts and failed attempts led to the rarest of things from Thomas Edison: silence. He was going to allow his results to speak for themselves for once. When he and his invention were ready, one hundred thirty-five years ago tonight, on December 31, 1879, Thomas Edison invited the public to his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to witness electric lights being turned on and off for the first time.

In September 1878, Edison had convinced himself that he was so close to an electric light that he announced it to the press. “I have it now! When the brilliancy and cheapness of the lights are made known to the public, illumination by carburated hydrogen gas will be discarded,” he told the New York Sun. Gas lamps inside and outside the house, with their many inherent dangers, were about to be a thing of the past.

Like many great inventors before and after him, Edison was almost as a good a salesman as inventor. He certainly was an inventor, one of the most accomplished in American history, but he was also a self-inventor. To this day, the image we associate with Edison and the image we associate with the word “inventor” are very close: that of an obsessed tinkerer in his garage, testing and refining different materials and different systems until success reveals itself. Think of the quotes from Edison one still encounters when looking for sayings about success: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Or, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Or, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Or, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

When he spoke to the Sun, he was already famous and becoming wealthy for inventing the phonograph and powerfully refining the telegraph, so dozens of investors in his electric light project came forward with enough capital to create the new Edison Electric Light Company, which is now General Electric. They knew what it would mean to be on board financially with the man who would bring electric light to every street and each house on those streets. A new world was about to be created. But not in 1878.

The investments helped. Edison was able to hire technicians and expand his lab at Menlo Park. It might have taken longer than four months for him to realize that a light bulb, a vacuum-sealed glass enclosure, was key. In March 1879, Edison once again announced that he was even closer to success. The historian Mark Essig quotes a skeptical newspaper article, from an impatient New York Daily Graphic writer:

Day after day, week after week, and month after month passes and Mr. Edison does not illumine Menlo Park with his electric light. The belief has become rather general in this country and in England that for once the great inventor has miscalculated his inventive resources and utterly failed.

(And we think the 24/7 news media we live in now is impatient. It always has been.)

When all the experiments and tinkering resulted in a successful product, Edison and his assistants knew it. They had a light bulb that was emitting more energy than was being put into it. For once he remained quiet. He wrote one friend, “It is an immense success. Say nothing.”

He put out the word that he was ready by inviting the public to his famous lab in northern New Jersey. The demand for rail tickets became so great that the rail companies added cars to the routes west. The crowd was estimated to be over three thousand, and no one in attendance was disappointed. Not even the newspaper reporters. Edison did not provide entertainment or work the crowd up with delays and announcements or speeches about the grand era to come; instead, he turned the light on and off, again and again, and allowed the public to do the same. The grand new era was here, and by September 1882, Edison’s company was providing electricity and light to customers in lower Manhattan.

(Mark Essig’s 2003 book, “Edison and the Electric Chair,” does a great job explaining the science behind the false starts; it is also a great work of history about the legal battle between Edison and Westinghouse and AC versus DC power distribution. It and some online articles helped when I noticed that today is the 135th anniversary of the debut of something I will be turning off about two minutes after midnight tonight. Happy New Year, everyone, and may the only tears any of us shed in 2015 be tears of joy.)

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 31 asks, “We cry for lots of reasons: sadness, pain, fear … and happiness. When was the last time you shed tears of joy?”

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Inglorious Grown-up-ness

This morning, I became a grown-up: I attempted to remove glasses from my face that were already in my fist.

For those of you who are lifelong glasses-wearers (it is almost 40 years for me), you know that there are several distinct methods of removing eyeglasses and several messages that are communicated in the manner of their removal. Off the top of my head, there’s Two-handed and Thoughtful, One-handed and from the Right and Angry (I usually drop or accidentally fling my glasses across the room with that one), and One-handed and from the Left and Trying to Get to the Heart of Things. There are others. Putting them on in front of people communicates pretty much one thing and one thing only: Enough Fun, Everyone. Back to Work.

I do not remember right now which message I was going for this morning, but both hands were heading for my face, so it must have been Two-handed and Thoughtful or maybe simply Pensive, but like an indecisive ASL translator, I saw the glasses in my left hand as they came towards my face, so I doubled-down and confused everyone including me by improvising this: I scratched my face with the folded-up glasses, moved them from my left hand to my right, opened them, put them on, and then removed them with my left hand—One-handed and Getting to the Heart of Things. All in about five spastic seconds.

It was like semaphore, but with glasses.

It was also such a complete set of mixed messages that I should not have been surprised if someone threw a grenade at me. In some cultures, I probably requested that. It would have almost completely relieved my red-faced embarrassment.

And it was all because I was surprised. I do not do slightly forgetful things. Strike that. I believe, deep down where I know me better than anyone, that I do not do slightly forgetful things at all ever. Misplacing my glasses is something that rests just this side of awful. I had laser surgery earlier this year, which transformed me from a wearer of Bible-thick lenses from my teen years until I had the surgery to a far-sighted person who can now wear cheap, dollar store reading glasses for reading. Thus I have actually left the house without my glasses. Why? I do not do slightly forgetful things. Not me. Not someone so organized I would arrange my pens alphabetically if I could decide on an issue that this would address or simply figure out how to do it.

And simple, insistent, rigid organization has always prevented me from forgetting things: Keys in the same place every night. Wallet, too. Glasses on my bookshelf. Check, check, and check. And I have left the house minus each one of these in turn recently. I need to re-organize the role of organization in my life.

So there it was this morning: Grown-upitude in all its vanity-defeating ingloriousness. In its lapses and gaps. “Mind the Gap” isn’t just a sign for British rail passengers; it should be stamped on my forehead.

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In “Losing the Marbles,” James Merrill calls memory lapses “dreamy blinkings-out.” It is a passage of life in which, ideally, one learns to forget. It is a frustrating one more thing to be balanced against the pleasures of life in the moment, the eternal moment, the always now. Thus, memory lapses are a sort of grace in that they place the forgetter firmly in the present.

Losing The Marbles
for John Malcolm Brinnin
I
Morning spent looking for my calendar—
Ten whole months mislaid, name and address,
A groaning board swept clean …
And what were we talking about at lunch? Another
Marble gone. Those later years, Charmides,
Will see the mind eroded featureless.

Ah. We’d been imagining our “heaven”s.
Mine was to be an acrobat in Athens
Back when the Parthenon—
Its looted nymphs and warriors pristine
By the early light or noon light—dwelt
Upon the city like a philosopher,
Who now—well, you have seen.

Here in the gathering dusk one could no doubt
“Rage against the dying of the light.”
But really—rage? (So like the Athens press,
Breathing fire to get the marbles back.)
Those dreamy blinkings-out
Strike me as grace, if I may say so,
Capital punishment,
Yes, but of utmost clemency at work,
Whereby the human stuff, ready or not,
Tumbles, one last drum-roll, into thyme,
Out of time, with just the fossil quirk
At heart to prove—hold on, don’t tell me … What?

—from The Inner Room (1988)

Merrill develops a connection between the commonplace expression “losing one’s marbles” and needing to find an acceptance of this reality of life and the centuries of rage at the theft from the Parthenon of most of its sculptures, its “marbles.” One can rage or one can find grace and acceptance and … I lost the thought. Sorry.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 29 asks, “When was the first time you really felt like a grown up (if ever)?”

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‘For the Time Being,’ Part 3

The concluding sections of W.H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio continue his blend of the contemporary and everyday with the mysterious and eternal. All of modern philosophy is briefly made to vanish in a blur of the mundane world:

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays.

The fact of faith—not what one has faith in, but that faith exists, is a reality itself—that is the miracle of the day, is what Christmas is about:

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

“For the Time Being” was published in 1944. It is found in Auden’s Collected Poems. Section III is perhaps the most often reprinted part of the poem:

III
NARRATOR:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—
Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

IV
CHORUS:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 26 asks, “Have you ever managed to paint yourself into the proverbial corner because of your words? What did you do while waiting for them ‘to dry’?”

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‘For the Time Being,’ Part 2

During World War II, the poet W.H. Auden wrote a book-length poem entitled “For the Time Being.” It is subtitled, “A Christmas Oratorio,” and it is a retelling of the Christmas story, but with a 20th Century sensibility. His Herod, for instance, is a technology-loving king who loves that he lives in an Age of Reason and is ever-perplexed by faith and irked that he must hunt down and exterminate the baby Jesus.

An oratorio is a type of composition that was popular in the Baroque period and in churches and has not had many comebacks as a poetic or theatrical form because it never had a period of dominance. It never went away but it was never the first choice of writing mode for many writers. (Paul McCartney produced a quite famous one, “A Liverpool Oratorio,” two decades ago.) Auden was a poet of structures and forms, though, and he produced an attempt at almost every style and poetic structure in his body of work (about 400 poems and several full-length verse plays).

Oratorios are not often staged because the form resides somewhere between performance and recitation. The piece will have characters, but the characters only address the audience and rarely each other. Music is not necessary but can supply punctuation and help telegraph and amplify the intended moods of the work. There is only one full-length recording of Auden’s Christmas oratorio online, from a performance in 2007 by the St. Peter’s Cultivators in Chicago:

By 1940, Auden’s personal spiritual journey saw him rejoin the Anglican Church of his youth in the form of the Episcopal Church. It was also around this time that he had emigrated from England to America. As Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, describes it, “Auden returned to the Anglican Communion in 1940 after seven years of thought about the moral content of Christianity, about what it means to love—or not to love—one’s neighbor as oneself.” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 2007.) More Mendelson:

Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To the extent that they became ends in themselves, or made it easier for a believer to isolate or elevate himself, they became—in the word Auden used about most aspects of Christendom—unchristian. Church doctrines, like all human creations, were subject to judgment. […] Auden referred to himself as a “would-be Christian,” because, he said, even to call oneself a Christian would be an unchristian act of pride. “Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.” [Emphasis mine.]

After a decade in which he personally witnessed the Spanish Civil War and watched Europe move into two philosophies—fascism and democracy—and gird itself for a war over them, Auden removed himself to New York City and developed for himself a personal faith that to some might sound a-religious and to others like he had become born again. It is in that mode that he wrote “For the Time Being,” a work that uses both verse and prose and toys vertiginously with setting (it is simultaneously urban and contemporary, 1940, and the Roman Empire in its Judean outposts).

For Christmas Day 2014, here are two sections, a verse by the Star of the Nativity and part of a long monologue by Herod on the subject of Faith versus Reason and how Reason must triumph (but won’t). The full poem is found in Auden’s Collected Poems.

The Summons
STAR OF THE NATIVITY:

I am that star most dreaded by the wise,
For they are drawn against their will to me,
Yet read in my procession through the skies
The doom of orthodox sophrosyne:
I shall discard their major preservation,
All that they know so long as no one asks;
I shall deprive them of their minor tasks
In free and legal households of sensation,
Of money, picnics, beer, and sanitation.

Beware. All those who follow me are led
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

If you will recall, the Three Wise Men visit King Herod to ask if he knows the location of the newborn king of the Jews that they have heard about. In response, Herod requests that the Wise Men find the baby Jesus and report back to him, ostensibly so he can travel and worship the baby but in truth to eliminate the child who might usurp his crown. In Auden’s oratorio, Herod is given a four-and-a-half page prose speech, because a man of reason would not be represented in verse. And Herod is above all a man of reason, a technocratic king with building projects throughout the land and an ongoing war against what he calls witchcraft and idolatry. He is also a bit of a fusspot:

The Massacre of the Innocents
Herod:

[…]To-day, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”
One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions—feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces.
Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o’clock in the afternoon.
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged. And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance.
[…]
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. […] Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better?

A conclusion tomorrow. Thank you for indulging me. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 25 asks, “You wake up one morning to find a beautifully wrapped package next to your bed. Attached to it is a note: “Open me, if you dare.” What’s inside the mystery box? Do you open it?”

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Santa and Me

I know Santa Claus, which I know sounds like a tall tale …

I do not remember the moment I learned that the many Santas that we encountered in person or saw on TV were “not real”; the fact that there was no “a-ha” moment leads me to assume that I never bought the story. Maybe so; maybe not. There is at least one photo of my sister and me in a “portrait with Santa,” and I remember the typical session. I knew the fellow was not Santa and I did not feel betrayed by this; I knew it was a guy overheating indoors in a snowsuit. It did not make much sense to me, to be a grown-up wearing a snowsuit indoors, but I did not envy adults the many things that they did, said, claimed, acted as if, and always eventually insisted made sense.

The nonsense things of the grown-up world were of no interest to me. From what I could determine, grown-ups were there to tell cover stories to kids to keep us in the dark about vitally important things, such as when we were getting presents; beyond that, I thought the only other thing one needed to be a grown-up was a wallet. And I had one of those, so my journey to adulthood was halfway done by age 10. It was a blue nylon wallet with a Velcro close. It was also always empty, or had the same few singles in it for years at a time. (“Empty” also describes my current wallet.)

My desires for Christmas were always selfish. I wanted “stuff” for Christmas, but really I had fun imagining the life I could be living … if only I could get the things I wanted from the many catalogs we received in the mail. I lacked imagination otherwise. Rarely did I get what I wanted, or what I convinced myself that I wanted.

I do not know why or how my family received so many giant Christmas catalogs from the various department stores (a dozen or so) that then dominated the retail landscape; perhaps every suburban family received them in the ’70s, but I knew my way around the catalogs like a medieval scholar rereading a saint’s life.

Did my parents wear pajamas? (Photo from eBay.)

Did my parents wear pajamas? (Photo from eBay.)

The holiday catalogs—Sears called its Christmas offering the “Wish Book”—were hundreds of pages long, and at least one of them per year would top 1000 pages. They were printed on thin paper and weighed many pounds apiece, with pages so saturated with color ink that their smell was unmistakable. I could always sniff out whether the magical books had been taken out and consulted during my day away from them at school. I would search them for any new tell-tale creases left behind by my parents in the pages. I never found new creases—never!—in the toy pages.

Some of the books had color bars along the side so one could quickly find one’s favorite section. As I got older, I graduated from coveting model cars and not very movable action dolls to desiring electronics. I did not dream of clothes for Christmas, nor did I understand why there were pages devoted to clothes at all—those struck me as a waste of space and ink and my precious time while searching for the toy pages (ignoring the helpful color codes on the side).

There is a nostalgia market for copies of these vintage catalogs, as can be seen by my illustrations. A copy of the 1978 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog was available last year for just under $20 on eBay. If my parents had held on to every copy of each store catalog we received every Christmas, well, I would have different parents than the ones I have. The epic, cuboid-shaped retail books were usually gone from our home shortly after the “order by” date had passed every year. 

A vintage Steve Austin doll. See the hole in the head? The push-button on his back 'controlled' his bionic left arm, which meant that his left arm was in fact useless. (Photo from eBay.)

A vintage Steve Austin doll. See the hole in the head? The push-button on his back ‘controlled’ his bionic left arm, which meant that his left arm was in fact useless. (Photo from eBay.)

My desires went through phases, from action dolls to Matchbox cars to magic kits to a brief fling with fully functioning model trains, to video games. (The most “useful” action doll was “Stretch Armstrong,” which was the one doll that lived up to its name and moved like the cartoon character. Thus, it was “realistic.” A friend had one of these. The least useful was the “bionic man” Steve Austin doll, which was easily broken but thoroughly indestructible. His bionic eye was not a telescope but instead a simple hole drilled through his head with a glass tube inserted. The tube was cloudy with dust within months of receiving the doll. Thus, it was “real” as opposed to “realistic.” That was the doll I owned.)

The pages that I really loved in the catalogs sold the model car tracks. Not the model cars or radio-controlled cars. The tracks. (See illustration at the top.) Mind you, any track that I ever actually owned myself was a simple oval, and, left to my own construction, I would somehow have sections unfinished and unfinish-able and unmatched leftover pieces of track. (Later in life, I wrote instruction manuals.) But I desired a multiple-lane highway of a Matchbox track, a complex of exit ramps and traffic circles. Some of the kits even came with stop signs, and I aspired to be the Robert Moses of my bedroom. Look at this page from a Montgomery Ward catalog, at the top of this column, with its huge illustrations and dense, descriptive copy. The track depicted on the bottom right, with its merging lanes and underpass, has me envious all over again. “Wish Book,” indeed.

The one time I played with a radio-controlled car on one such elaborate track was at a friend’s house; he had it set up on his living room floor, which made little to no sense to me, and the moment he handed me a controller, my car flipped off the track, rolled under a couch, and re-emerged for a split-second just before falling off the landing to the hardwood foyer floor below. (This may explain my lifelong hatred of split-level houses.) We looked at each other during that two seconds of loud silence that always precedes the unmistakable sound of irreversible destruction. I do not remember being invited to his house again.

I wanted the ultimate magic kit, too, and as with anything advertised in the catalogs, the magic kits grew more complex with higher prices. They all included a “magic wand,” a wooden dowel painted black, or, in the more expensive kits, painted with a white tip. In all the kits, from simple to pricey, the tricks were easy to follow, both for the performer and, unfortunately, his audience. Most of the tricks in magic kits are the basic shell game and some variations—balls and cups—or include a set of pre-marked cards or a dummy set of all aces or jokers.

The lesson in kit after kit, year after year (my parents are patient people) was an easy one that I rejected time after time: that real magic is only possible through cheating or hiding the fact you, the performer, are cutting corners. This seemed like more nonsense from grown-ups, like a fake Santa. As a result, I would lose interest in each magic kit within weeks or months, but I wanted a new kit every single Christmas.

For me, most magic kits emphasize the word “trick” and lose that word “magic,” and I think what I wanted out of a magic kit was to learn a trick that would take its performer for a ride as much as it did the audience. I did not want to learn how to perform the tricks; I wanted to perform them. I wanted to be astonished, too.

I believed that such magic existed. And every Christmas, I believed that it would arrive in a cheap cardboard box of tricks with easy-to-lose balls and cups. Somehow I was never disappointed; the magic simply wasn’t in this particular box, it may have been in the one next to it on the shelf, I told myself. Maybe next year. 

Ah, well. Life’s magic does exist. And it astonishes its performer and takes him for as much of a ride as it does his audience. The magic may in fact be in the next moment or the one just behind it on the shelf. Because I know Santa Claus. Always did. He’s always a few doors down the street, just out of sight and sound for the moment.

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Happy holidays, all of them, from my family and friends to you and yours.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 24 asks, “Who’s your hero? Tell us a story about why that person plays such an important role in your life.”

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‘You must learn to bluff, too’

2014 was (is) the Unpredictable Year in The Gad’s house. For one thing, I had resolved to not start a sentence with a number this year (I just failed that right there in front of all of you) or address myself in the third-person using the amusing name I gave to this blog (fail numero two).

There is an expression, “The only constant in life is change,” and the person in my life who used to utter this expression every single day that I saw him died in May. What a terrible way to illustrate a notion. There were “I love you’s” spoken in the hospital, so that friendship ended as a completed thought for us both.

At this time last year, I was living in a different house in a different town altogether and even though I had plans to move house in 2014, it was not to where I am living on this December 22.

So it goes,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, many times. Often it was a sigh spoken by one of his characters, a philosophy of acceptance in three words and not one word more because there was nothing more (for them) to say, and at other times it was uttered with a tone of defiance: Acceptance as defiance. “You want me to fight back? Don’t hold your breath.”

From the birth of the calendar, in the year before counting, cultures have connected two opposite modes of thought to the new year. It is a time for reflection and even atonement, for clearing the wreckage of the past year if there is any, and it is a time for resolve, for aspirations and plans for the coming year, which are usually desires to make plans to be somehow different than one was in the immediate past.

No one resolves to perform deeds for which they will have to atone the next new year, at least no one that I know does, but the coming year is the territory in which one will make mistakes or cross people the wrong way. So it goes.

There were other goodbyes in 2014. Because I moved to a town that is forty-five minutes from where I lived for the last several years and I do not drive, there are some friends I have not seen in eight months. Sometimes friends who live a cross-country flight away can seem closer than those who live an hour drive away. Do not feel sorry, or anything, for me: I’m not exactly using up anyone’s phone batteries.

One goodbye was a surprise, and I wrote about it a few months ago: “Requiem.”

Because I work at living my life in the moment, expecting success, this year has in fact been a great, interesting, love-filled year. If I had even tried to make a resolution at the start of 2014, it would have been something like that statement: Accept the year to come as great, interesting, and love-filled, but also work hard at presenting life as great, interesting, and love-filled to those around me. I have no clue if I achieved that second clause, other than the working at it part. I worked at it. As a result, most of life is a pleasant surprise and those things that aren’t are that way for a reason I will figure out. (Anyone reading this who is a parent can probably tell that I am not one.)

I keep returning to a charming story about Auden (more from him later this week) that was published last year, an anecdote about his kindness. I want to work at being more like this:

Sixty years ago my English teacher brought me to London from my provincial grammar school for a literary conference. Understandably, she abandoned me for her friends when we arrived, and I was left to flounder. I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself. Auden must have sensed this because he approached me and said, “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff, too.”

So it goes. Let’s bluff our way together into 2015.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 22 asks, “We’re entering the final days of 2014—how did you do on your New Year’s resolutions these past 11.75 months? Is there any leftover item to be carried over to 2015?”

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Connect the Colors

For those with synesthesia, the world seems no more interconnected than they assume it always is for the rest of us, until the person with the condition casually mentions how lively and bright blue the letter K always is to a playmate, who then reacts in a baffled way.

It is a condition that an unknown number of people have, but it is a condition to which the modifier “suffers” can not be added, because it does not often have negative effects on an individual’s life. It is not known how many people have or might have some form of synesthesia because not many people take the time or are offered the opportunity to describe the way they perceive how they perceive the things they perceive.

A person who is color-blind usually learns at a young age that there is a color that everyone else sees and can name that they do not see. (I am a person who does not have color-blindness, so I have difficulty describing it. I have had color-blind friends, and one, a great writer, made it sound like something I wanted to experience, too, which was not his aim.) Opportunities do not present themselves very often to mention that when they see blue they taste sweet, and when the first opportunity comes and the synesthete takes it and is met with a puzzled look that they interpret as criticism, most do not mention it again.

It is a world of connections that the synesthete occupies, with sounds presenting colors or colors tastes. At its most benign, it is not an intrusive sensation; there are not many reports of individuals avoiding specific words or numbers because of a foul taste or harsh sound, or vice versa. But there are some. Most people with synestesia report that the experience is an awareness that, for instance, a color is involved with the letter or word they are looking at. It is something that can be ignored or enjoyed.

Somewhere in my school days, I must have mentioned seeing words as I speak them, and the classmate to whom I told this must have made me feel terrible. What remains in my memory is a ghost of a thought that I was somehow a bad person for this and needed to tell on myself to the teacher the next time we had a spelling bee: I thought I was cheating whenever I “saw” a spoken word and could spell it out loud as if it was in front of me. (I think I did try in my eight-year-old way to tell her and was met with a baffled look.) Maybe I am simply a very good speller and that’s that. Maybe everyone sees their speech. (It is always word by word, not whole sentences and they are always white letters.) If it is a form of synesthesia, it is the most boring case of it anywhere, ever, and all it ever did for me was earn me a lot of 100s in spelling tests in elementary school.

To this day, if I concentrate, I see the words I speak … somewhere in my perception. Not so plainly that they block what I am looking at in reality, but they are somewhere, usually to my left. This was the case when I studied foreign languages, too, the spelling just came naturally. There are words that never show up, though, and those are the words I always need to look for.

How does one describe one’s perception? 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—in which case, Hooray for us! because “strawberry” is the best flavor, period—or they do not. And there is no boundary definitively marking the areas in which a “blue always seems to cheer me up” casual causality that most people express and the areas in which a child can spell, not because of an “i before e” rule, but because red always goes to the left of green, which tastes better anyway.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for June 7 asks, “If you were forced to give up one sense, but gain super-sensitivity in another, which senses would you choose?”

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 21 asks, “You can singlehandedly create a causal relation between two things that are currently unconnected—a word and an emotion, a song and an extreme weather event, wearing a certain color and winning the lottery. What cause would you link to what effect, and why?”

And please visit and participate in the Alterna-Prompt, “The Blog Propellant.”

‘Being There’

Contemporary accounts make it sound like watching the man perform on stage was like watching a man possessed: Fascinating and frightening, but a genius. He became world-famous and theaters billed him as the “Funniest Man on Earth.”

A later performer became an international superstar and said many times of himself, to interviewer after interviewer, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.” Watching him was like watching a man possessed by the accents and mannerisms of any character. He also said, “There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” His questioner in this particular case was Kermit the Frog.
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