James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist, Sitting

For most of 1928, James Joyce’s attention was unequally divided among many projects and complications: He was keeping a wary watch over German and French translations of “Ulysses,” his 1922 novel; readying sections of his next novel, which was still officially titled “Work in Progress” (published as “Finnegan’s Wake” years later, in 1939); defending “Work in Progress” from negative reviews and letters from friends who were urging him to quit his experimental writing; explaining to his patrons when new sections of “Work in Progress” could be expected so that he could have an income; and losing his eyesight.

He was 46 years old, living in Paris with his partner, Nora, and their two children, and life was complicated. He was engaged in writing the novel that became “Finnegan’s Wake,” and his artistic ambition for it and its effect on him were both unsparing. “Ulysses” tells a story of a single day, June 16, 1904, in a particular place, Dublin, using as many types of storytelling and modes of rhetoric as he could use. Joyce intended “Work in Progress” to do the same thing but for the idea of nighttime; it is entirely inside the sleeping and dreaming mind of some unknown person, and it is written in a sort of pidgin English animated by puns.

His letters to his patrons tended to obscure matters even further and made it more challenging to continue funding his project. In one 1927 letter to his most important supporter, Harriet Shaw Weaver, he wrote something with “the intention of enlightenment,” as his biographer Richard Ellmann cheerfully puts it, but what he sent read:

I am making an engine with only one wheel. No spokes, of course. The wheel is a perfect square. You see what I’m driving at, don’t you? I am awfully solemn about it, mind you, so you must not think it is a silly story about the mooks and the grapes. No, it’s a wheel, I tell the world. And it’s all square. (Ellmann, 597)

Weaver tried to get in the spirit of his constant riddling and urged him to square the wheel, a suggestion for which he thanked her but further explained that he was doing something different than that. By 1928, financially and artistically discouraged, he declared to one friend

Critics who were most appreciative of “Ulysses” are complaining about my new work. They cannot understand it. Therefore they say it is meaningless. Now if it were meaningless it could be written quickly, without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I assure you that these twenty pages now before us cost me twelve hundred hours and an enormous expense of spirit.” (Ellmann, 598)

Thus, Weaver traveled from London to Paris in 1928 to see for herself how things were going, on the occasion of Joyce’s 46th birthday. The visit reassured both parties and later that year he received word of an advance payment from two American publishers.

This is the James Joyce captured in Berenice Abbott’s famous portrait of the artist: At rest and a bit more confident in his world. The left lens in his eyeglasses is shaded, evidence of the ongoing battle to save his sight. It is one of the two or three most famous photos of the author, the one fondly parodied on the album cover for “If I Should Fall From Grace with God”:
Pogues

james-joyceAbbott was an American who became more famous in later years for her portraits of New York City during the Great Depression. She spent the decade of the 1920s learning her craft, working with the photographer Man Ray, and opened her own studio in 1927. She had photographed Joyce before, in 1926, and that photo session saw the author wearing an eye patch after surgery (and a soul patch under his lower lip):

 

 

joyce sans hatJoyce apparently liked sitting for Abbott, as there are several other photos from the 1928 session, without the stylish fedora and cane, but obviously from the same session, as he is wearing the same striped necktie. I think the one at left captures Joyce with more feeling; perhaps without the protection the hat and cane afforded him he let his guard down. The iconic photo of an iconic literary figure is followed by a photo of a weary, but not wary, momentarily confident, 46-year-old artist.

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James Joyce died 74 years ago today, January 13, 1941.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 13 asks, “Pick a random word and do Google image search on it. Check out the eleventh picture it brings up. Write about whatever that image brings to mind.” When one searches Google Images for images of the great author, the famous Berenice Abbott photo, the one at the top of this column, is number 11.

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Anger, Nothing But Ed Anger

The greatest newspaper—ever!—is and was the Weekly World News. Its presence next to every grocery store checkout lane is thoroughly missed by every non-Bat Boy walking among us.

Most American boys who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, and by most, I mean me, made this progression in our reading: from Cracked magazine, which quickly revealed itself to be a weak imitation of Mad magazine, to Mad magazine, which was brilliant but I (we) stopped looking at it around age 14, through a wasteland of our teen years and the New York Times and homework—heck, the Times and all newspapers everywhere just feel like permanent homework, don’t they? AmIRight?—to the discovery that the Weekly World News existed.

It is a three-word title and only one of those three words is correct: Weekly. Is this terrible? No. That is a .333 average and a career batting average like that would result in the hitter being elected to the Hall of Fame. So, weekly, yes. World? A printing press in central Florida certainly is on the globe. But “world” is an exaggeration. News? Well, upon finishing every article I would say out loud, “It’s news to me.”

An alien named P’lod regularly visited the White House and advised presidents Clinton and Bush? News to me. Where is CNN? Someone call somebody. There’s a boy abused by his own shadow? That’s a heartbreaking slice of life story. (An admission: When I was young, my own shadow was faster than me, too. It was only when lights were behind me, but still.) Bat Boy? You can’t make this stuff up … because why would anyone? That is why everything the WWN reported had to be true … ish … or, okay, not at all.

WWNtwinkieTwinkies are a superfood? In my life, on occasion, ‘deed they were. (I have now been sober for almost five years.) I love this article, TWINKIES: THE NEW SUPERFOOD!, by the way; look at that photo. How small a staff works there now? How small is the budget? Once upon a time, the reported paid circulation was a quarter-million readers, and of course, all of the Men in Black. The staff could not afford the minutes to leave the office and spend two dollars on some real fruit and berries and real Twinkies, so they had to copy-and-paste a clip-art photo of a broken Twinkie over a photo of some fruit? Even in the name of truth or comedy? You can see the white border around the middle Twinkie.

I would like to think that someone spent extra time to make this photomontage look this sloppy, in the same way that I like to think, for approximately six seconds, that every word in the newspaper is true.

The newspaper—and yes, only half of that term is correct, in that the publication was in fact printed on paper—the paper ran into hard times and only exists online now. It is there that you will find a few, a precious few, examples of the paper’s opinion writer, Ed Anger, who appeared in its pages from 1979 till around a few years ago. The title of his book, “Let’s Pave the Stupid Rainforests & Give School Teachers Stun Guns: And Other Ways to Save America,” gives a taste of his typical opinion.

Ed Anger was a creation of a staff writer named Rafe Klinger and then was the pet project of the editor, a man named Eddie Clontz. After Clontz died, several writers have revealed that they took turns editorializing as Ed Anger in the years since. Klinger sued the WWN, arguing that the paper could not continue to run the angry Anger editorials, but he lost. Thus, there was some real anger animating Ed Anger’s anger.

Ed Anger hates everything and everyone, especially Democrats, foreigners, religions other than his, wild animals that somehow need protection even though they have claws, complicated foods, and most television programming. Each editorial begins with, “I’m madder than a” and then promptly becomes less funny over the subsequent four hundred words or so.

Ed Anger amused me because I remembered a real Ed Anger in my hometown when I was growing up. I do not remember the gentleman’s name, but people in Dutchess County, New York, may remember in the 1970s a self-published newspaper—a blog, but on paper—by a writer who devoted pages to convincing his readers that all people of color were bad, that all Democrats were Communists, that the local Democrats were Satanists, that his new tin-foil hat was protecting him. Now, anyone can think anything they like and hate anything they want to, can write inspiringly dull sentences outlining their many hatreds, can self-publish those sentences in a newspaper or blog, can spend money getting copies printed and distributed, but this man, the real-life Ed Anger of my youth, he had advertising in his local production! His racist and anti-semitic, single-note, single-theme weekly newspaper, which was basically an eight-page run-on sentence interrupted by headlines, had ads in it. There were local businesses whose owners maybe did not want to rile people up by publicizing their political leanings, but they paid for ads in this one man’s hate-filled quirk.

As Ed Anger might have written: “You know what I think of that?” It is not printable in a family blog.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 11 asks, “Pick a contentious issue about which you care deeply—it could be the same-sex marriage debate, or just a disagreement you’re having with a friend. Write a post defending the opposite position, and then reflect on what it was like to do that.”

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Glass Houses

There is a wonderful show business saying that if a performer is a great enough talent, “you could put him or her behind a brick wall and they will still find a way to entertain.” While I believe this to be true in idealistic theory, I also think that not putting him or her behind a brick wall would be profoundly helpful to their cause. If a website is going to be worth a visit, publicity is going to help get that visit.

I have gone viral approximately not once, so I have some expertise in the field of not being at all famous.

Some of you may not remember that last March I was almost on the verge of getting on line for the waiting room to visit the Land of the Almost Known. My “About.me” page was featured on that website’s “popular” list, and my page, which usually receives about 150 views per day, was seen by 3051 other About.me users, 2000 within the first hour of being listed. Another 1300 visited the next day.

Three thousand. I know, I know. I have lived in at least one building that had a larger population.

What does fame feel like? Living in Philip Johnson’s “Glass House.”

The Glass House. Located in New Canaan, CT, it was built in 1949.

The Glass House. Located in New Canaan, CT, it was built in 1949.


 
This post will be number 192, I think, on this website. There are a handful of columns that I am proud of having written and published, and they are these:
1. The several pieces I have published about my life with adult spinal muscular atrophy. I even explain the duck on my website. Here, I will group them together in one package: Spinal muscular atrophy.
2. A Conspiracy Theory of Conspiracy Theories
3. Guilty of White
4. Requiem for a Sponsor
5. Two appreciations of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band and its leader, Vivian Stanshall
6. A column about the Baseball Hall of Fame
7. An appreciation of one of my favorite places, Opus 40
8. Comedy: The ‘Fish-Slapping Dance’
9. A column about W.H. Auden’s character: “Auden’s Decency”

As a self-publicist, I am not certain I would hire me, but I was the only person to apply for the job. On Twitter, there are a handful of people who profess to like what appears here and even share selected pieces. That amazes me, and I am speechless.

There are also people on that service who use unpleasant names (I was called the B word recently, which was a surprise) or offer strange advice (when I shared a recording of T.S. Eliot the other day, the fiftieth anniversary of his death, one person took the time to explain what drugs I ought to get a prescription for, and that he could help). In the name of publicity, I should never block anyone, but I did in both of those cases.

No glass house for me.

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Please visit some or all of the above columns, follow me on Twitter, and please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/thegadabouttown. Thanks.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 6 asks, “Your blog just became a viral sensation. What’s the one post you’d like new readers to see and remember you by? Write that post.”

Be Whose Change, Now?

Blame former Vice President Al Gore. In his bestselling book, “Earth in the Balance” (1992), Gore recounts the story of watching his six-year-old son be hit by a car, and the months he and his wife spent bringing the boy back to health.

He writes that “something changed in a fundamental way” for him that year, 1989: he turned 40, watched his son almost die, and lost the 1988 Presidential election. (He came in a distant “don’t remember him running that year” in the primaries to Michael Dukakis.)

On the same page as that list, page 14 in the revised edition, he writes that,

This life change has caused me to become increasingly impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through. Such complacency has allowed many kinds of difficult problems to breed and grow, but now, facing a rapid deteriorating global environment, it threatens absolute disaster. No one can now afford to assume that the world will somehow solve its problems. We must all become partners in a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization.

(Gore does a far better job connecting the personal with the political than I did for him just now, above; reading the long quote on its own, as I shared it, reminds me of a tire-screeching/pulling-the-stereo-needle-across-the-record sound effect. “One minute, he was talking about turning 40, and then? This is connected to climate change how?” Okay. He spends the first dozen pages laying out his political credentials as a leader trying to avert the environmental catastrophe that we are now 20-plus years closer to than when he was writing. Then he reveals something that few politicians like to admit: vulnerability and teachability.) (My own Al Gore cred: the first vote I ever cast for president was for him, in 1988, in the New York State Democratic primary, which Dukakis won. I voted for Clinton/Gore twice and Gore in 2000. Nine years after its release, I have yet to view “An Inconvenient Truth,” however.)

In the next paragraph, he brings in Mahatma Gandhi, and bumper stickers have not been the same since.

I believe deeply that true change is possible only when it begins inside the person who is advocating it. Mahatma Gandhi said it well: ‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world.’ And a story about Gandhi—recounted by Craig Schindler and Gary Lapid—provides a good illustration of how hard it is to ‘be the change.’ Gandhi, we are told, was approached one day by a woman who was deeply concerned that her son was eating too much sugar. ‘I am worried about his health,’ she said. ‘He respects you very much. Would you be willing to tell him about its harmful effects and suggest he stop eating it?’ After reflecting on the request, Gandhi told the woman that he would do as she requested, but asked that she bring her son back in two weeks, no sooner.

As Gore tells it, or Schindler-Lapid tell it, the mother and son visit Gandhi two weeks later and he delivers his health message to the boy. The mother thanks him but asks why he had requested a two-week wait. “Because I needed the two weeks to stop eating sugar myself,” he is said to have replied.

And we all, without prompting, cast Sir Ben Kingsley as “cuddly Gandhi” in our movie version of this anecdote in our minds. In 12-step fellowship meetings, I promise you will hear someone re-tell this anecdote as if it appeared in the great movie biography, or in any biography of the great man.

No version of the story appears in any biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Nor does the “be the change” quote. According to a spiritual writer named Keith Akers, the bumper-sticker-perfect expression, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” can not be traced anywhere in the world until the 1970s at the earliest. He spent a couple of years trying to find the statement in Gandhi’s published and recorded works. His article, “Did Gandhi Really Say ‘Be the Change,’” concludes that it is a legend. Not that there is anything wrong with the notion—it is certainly a viable suggestion to make in any debate—but someone wanted to add some historical-philosophical oomph to the thought and attributed it to Mahatma Gandhi.

Akers also shares the amazingly ironic fact that several years ago, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association used the phrase in a pamphlet it released aimed at educating school boards about making sure beef was a part of their school districts’ nutrition and wellness plans for the coming school year. It is not attributed to Gandhi, but there it is, uncited and without quotes, in a document dated September 2005. About beef and its positive role in a youngster’s school nutrition.

In 2011, a writer named Brian Morton published in the New York Times an essay titled “Falser Words Were Never Spoken.” Akers also cites it. Morton expounds on several bogus quotations, including the “be the change” thought, and authoritatively quotes this from Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

He calls it the “closest verifiable remark” from Gandhi on the idea, but he does not offer a source so that anyone else can verify its closeness or its anything-ness. A Google search yields articles on spiritual websites that recount the mother and son and sugar story (some quite vividly, making it sound like an adventure tale), and the trek to the spiritual leader, and his request that they check back with him some time later (in some versions it is two weeks, in others, three days). And then the long version of the quote, the Morton quote, is offered in these stories, which were found today in a simple Google search, as Gandhi’s wise words to the mother.

There is no documented evidence he ever even said the Morton quote. Gandhi was an activist, so yes, putting his money where his mouth was would have counted for something. But he was not merely a spokesman for his ideals, telling people how to live. He knew that personal discipline in one person can not change anything, certainly not a government, but that a lot of people of discipline, working together and pushing each other, can. Those who like to vocalize the “be the change” quote are rarely heard speaking about changing unjust political systems or sparking revolutions; usually they use the quote to remind each other to smile more and be more sunny and thus make the world a smilier, sunnier place. And anyone who doesn’t smile back? It’s their fault.

If you want to write a best-selling bumper sticker, water a big thought down to a weak and insipid one, make it sound altruistic but really be about self-congratulation, and attribute it to someone long dead who really was a deep thinker but who would not have thought or even uttered what you are crediting them with saying.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 2 asks, “What change, big or small, would you like your blog to make in the world?”

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Pathies: Sym- vs. Em-

A friend used to say, “If everyone could throw their problems onto a table in the middle of the room and then listen to each other’s stories, everyone would go crazy trying to make sure they got their own problem back.”

Until this past year, I was unfamiliar with the term “spoonie” or the “spoon theory.” For those with chronic, painful and pain-filled conditions and illness, the term has become incredibly popular in the last half-decade, because it depicts better than most analogies what it is like to live with a chronic illness or disability.

A writer named Christine Miserandino is credited with inventing the analogy on her terrifically-named website, But You Don’t Look Sick. She has lupus and tells a story about how she explained to her best friend what her world is like. She handed the friend a dozen spoons and explained that it is now the start of a new day and that different tasks would cost a spoon each. When she reveals that “getting up and showering” would cost a couple spoons, the point started to become clear.

From “The Spoon Theory” :

I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons.” But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she? I also told her to always be conscious of how many she had, and not to drop them because she can never forget she has Lupus.

People with chronic pain have a talent for analogy that perhaps they did not know they had until they learned that they needed to find a way to communicate what life feels like for them. They become good explainers, because the quality of their life depends on it.

Because pain is one of the most personal of sensations, or appears to be—a burn might feel the same for you as it feels or me, but we only have our anecdotes to compare and weigh against one another; meanwhile, I’m on fire!—because perception is personal and pain is utterly a perception and not a measurable reality, those who suffer chronic pain are left with their own talent for creating analogies to make others understand their day, their night, their world. Anyone who has visited a pain specialist (I have not) is familiar with the range of sketched faces that they must circle to communicate how much pain they are in. I have a friend with fibromyalgia, and I remember her saying things like, “My back is at a 7, but my legs are a 5.”

Good sensations seem to be almost universal; our senses of humor may differ, but a laugh is a laugh. Your feet might be ticklish while my arms might be, but a tickle is the same for us both. (Unless it causes pain, which it might for someone with fibromyalgia.) As much as I love comedy and enjoy making people laugh, I have not yet found myself explaining why I found that one punch-line made me laugh with a barely audible “Heh” (call it a 4 on the laugh scale that does not exist) and another one got a laugh from the back of my throat.

Until July 15, 2010, I did not have much skill with empathy. Sympathy, sure. Sympathy is an “attaboy” given to someone bearing up under a weight without offering to assist in lifting it at all. Sympathy was something I gave to someone with the expectation that I would be thanked by the injured party. “Wow, that sucks,” is sympathy, and before the other person can continue talking and telling the sympathetic person any details, the sympathetic person has moved on, having rescued them with an “attaboy” of sympathy.

Empathy is love. It is saying to someone, “I do not know what this is like. Tell me,” and then listening. Of the two “‘pathies,” it is the one that requires more effort but can bring greater rewards.

If my problems were in the center of the room—my diminished mobility and two hands that are becoming clubs (I can tie shoelaces, but only if I want to eat up a day)—I would take them back. And maybe they have given me a modicum of empathy.

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In answer to no one’s question: Yes. I chose a new layout. I was using “The Columnist” all 2014, was happy with it, but thought I would change things for the new year. I am using the free layouts still, but might invest in this website. Any suggestions? Sympathy? Empathy? Does this layout make my ideas look good?

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 1 asks, “If you could spend the next year as someone radically different from the current ‘you’—a member of a different species, someone from a different gender or generation, etc.—who would you choose to be?”

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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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‘Hindsight Is 50/50’ Sunday

[In 1997, the following column, “The New Wave,” won the New York Press Association’s “Best Column: Humorous Subjects” award in its “Best Newspaper” contest. I was the assistant editor, sports editor, schools page editor, and copy editor for a small-circulation weekly in Sullivan County, New York, which means that I acquired a lot of experience for very little pay. It was mostly worth it.

It is one of the very first columns I ever wrote, which is a fact that I hated for years after—”It was only ‘beginner’s luck’ that won me that award,” I complained silently to myself. (For years, I lived my life as someone who could think of an award or reward as a denial or a subtraction. And then I would spend some more time ruefully rueing the things I rued.) I was 27 at the time, and I think I also assumed more awards were coming my way. Until I started this blog on WordPress, there were no more awards.

The date of June 1996 is a bit of a guess from me as to its publication date. It might have been earlier that year. My family found a copy of the clip recently, so I have typed it up and included it here, back-dated and with some 2014 interjections, because I can not help myself. From 1996, “The New Wave.”]

The line at the local bakery for this morning’s hearty breakfast goodness was a long one. Some people arrived after me and were recognized by others ahead of me. These friends were all about the same age, 20 or so, and they politely took turns saying “Hey.” Eight “heys” rat-a-tatted out before they settled into their “what are you up tos.”

One friend waved to another behind me. The wave was one that has become popular in the last year or so [this was written in 1996] in this age group. Instead of the usual “Hi! How are you doing!” side-to-side shake of the hand next to the head, which has satisfied people in all their hand-waving needs since we first noticed there were people to wave at, it was cool, reserved. The traditional wave is too frantic, just another thing mom and dad do to embarrass us.

He raised his hand to half the height of the traditional wave, crooked his index finger above the rest, jammed his thumb into the crook of this finger, and passed the knot of fingers side to side four or five times. It was more of a grip than a wave. The expression on his face did not change.

To picture this new wave, imagine a baby swinging a rattle more vigorously than needed merely to make a noise, but not hard enough to hit itself in the head. Now imagine the baby without the rattle, but not crying because you took the rattle away. This is the wave. Now picture someone else, say your 20-year-old, doing it. He is sullen, but not so sullen that he cannot wave hello.

There are times when I think this is a valid wave. There are times when friendliness feels conventional, like something people do because they are supposed to. Why bother waving if you do not feel like it?

Conversation revealed that these friends had not seen each other in months. Their joy at seeing one another again after a semester away at college was not palpable. The wave, the greetings, and the conversation were all expressed with the emotional intensity of a lawyer representing a slightly unfriendly witness before a Congressional subcommittee.

People cannot commit even to saying hello to friends with emotion. Emotion is so … old. Their only solid commitment us to its non-expression.

Teenagers’ telephone conversations are traditionally perfunctory: [2014 interrupts: “Why ‘traditionally’? Maybe ‘similarly’?” And why telephone conversations? Oh, right, 1996. Life in the land before texting.]

“Hey.”
“Hey.”
“You home?’
“Yeah.”
“You want to do something?”
“Yeah. You?”
“You want to come over?”
“Yeah.”
“Bye.”
“Bye”

But this mode of conversation is extending way past adolescence into adulthood, middle age [2014 again: Ha!], and old age, which is new.

Walk around your town. Notice the other residents doing their shopping and browsing. As you and someone you do not know very well or even at all come upon each other, you may both smile, but it will not involve any teeth. The smiles will instead be grim little grins. You may both even say “Hi” as you pass, but you will wait for the other to speak first, and his faintly whispered “Hi” minus the “i” sound will be returned with your own clipped “Hi” greeting. One of you may even manage a “How are you?” but so inaudibly as to render the question silly.

I have been greeted by, and have returned this greeting to, people I know very well. Family members, even. We both appear to be in such a hurry, even though we are not, and we both know we are not. We cannot commit any emotion to the exchange, because we do not want to look silly. One never knows when interpersonal disaster will strike, apparently.

It seems if we are too warm with each other, we think the other person will walk away muttering to himself, “Drunk.”

A suggestion: The next time you see someone give the new wave, drop him to the ground, pin him, flatten his waving hand against the pavement, and make him greet you. Make him express how truly happy he is to see you. The world should be more friendly, damn it.

Copyright 1996 TRR

[The award citation said some very nice things, as it was an award, about how the column expanded its scope from something small to a larger thought. I guess I still try to do that.]

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 28 asks, “Now that you’ve got some blogging experience under your belt, re-write your very first post.”

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