Respect That Mechanism (Covid Post 2)

Many years ago, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and I almost lost my mind.*  All around me, people were going about their lives, oblivious to the impending nuclear holocaust.  I spent my days lurking around newsstands (there was no Internet then), listening to news radio, shaking, and looking out my window, scanning the sky for that white light.  I slept one or two hours a night; my muscles ached from constant tension.  I envied  old people because they had lived complete lives. This went on for five weeks.  Then it stopped.  I woke up one morning and it was like that moment in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opened the door and the world had color.  My colors were back.

This never happened to me again.  I’m not confident it couldn’t (even a brief bout of mental illness is permanently humbling), but I don’t worry about it.

I don’t worry about it because it’s not something I can control anyway.

What I remember most clearly about this episode is my profound bewilderment when people (the few in whom I confided) said “Look, there’s no point in worrying about stuff you can’t control.”  I thought they were insane.

Denial is a wonderful human strategy.  It makes happiness possible. I’m sure we’re not the only animal that knows we’re mortal, but other animals don’t need denial because they’re too busy surviving.  To deny, and to need to deny, you need top-of-the-food-chain-leisure time.  Anyway, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, my denial mechanism crashed, and there I was in the howling void where anything can happen and tomorrow is hypothetical.

I’m not much of a sharer except in fiction, but I’m sharing this today because all around me I see good people worrying about stuff they can’t control, and I wish I could help them, and I probably can’t, because all I can do is tell them to stop it, and I remember how useless that advice was when the Russians invaded Afghanistan.

We hang by a thread.  We always have and we always will.  Sometimes a thing will happen and we glimpse that thread, which is just a metaphor but metaphors are all we can access because the void itself is unimaginable, and the metaphorical curtain parts and confronts us with what we’ve been blithely denying.

This is not fun.  Still, it isn’t unbearably scary if you’ve learned your lesson about the limitations of your own anxious mind.  All we have is now.  It’s all we’ve ever had and all we ever will.

This is one of those profound truths that you can “know” without really knowing.  Real knowledge sinks deep.  Millions of people know already, some of them so eminently sensible that they never thought otherwise, others having learned through experience.  Also, it really helps to be old.  But I do worry about the people who can’t sleep.

If you’re one of them or worried  that you might be, this is all I have to offer, and forgive my presumption:

Look after your colors and lean into the now.

 

*Not funny at the time, but that is a funny line.

A Brief Lecture on Sentence Structure

My literary idols include the great humorists of the first half of the twentieth century.  They continue to entertain me when I read and inspire me as I write.  They knew how to craft a sentence.

They sometimes began their pieces with a quote they found especially ridiculous and proceeded to use it as a writing prompt.  For example, Perelman had a field day with Diana Vreeland’s Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France?

James Thurber begins “Something to Say” with a quote from a thing called “Memoirs of a Polyglot” by William Gerhardt.*

Hugh Kingsmill and I stimulated each other to such a pitch that after the first meeting he had a brain storm and I lay sleepless all night and in the morning was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

After that, Thurber is off and running. His fictional narrator recollects his experiences with the spectacularly obnoxious Elliot Vereker and explains why he was “the only man who ever continuously stimulated me to the brink of a nervous breakdown.”

This is one of my favorite Thurber pieces, and one which still sticks in my mind not just because it is funny but because of the structure of a single sentence.  Thurber was a rewriter—every piece went through multiple drafts—so you know that the published sentences were structured exactly as intended.

That single sentence appears within:

“…Vereker always liked to have an electric fan going while he talked and he would stick a folded newspaper into the fan so that the revolving blades scuttered against it, making a noise like the rattle of machinegun fire. This exhilarated him and exhilarated me, too, but I suppose it exhilarated him more than it did me.  He seemed, at any rate, to get something out of it that I missed. He would raise his voice so that I could hear him above the racket. Sometimes, even then, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. “What?” I would shout. “You heard me!!” he would yell, his good humor disappearing in an instant.

I had, of course, not heard him at all.  There was no reasoning with him, no convincing him. I can still hear the musketry of those fans in my ears. They have done, I think, something to me.”

Note the odd structure of that last sentence.  Most of us would have worded it

I think they have done something to me.

Thurber interrupts the sentence, sticking “I think” in the middle, creating an awkward rhythm.  If you try reading the piece aloud, you are likely to trip on “I think.” The narrator himself stops here, still grappling with what that “something” was. The structure of this sentence conveys the damage done to the poor man. It’s brilliant.

That’s the thing about the great American humorists of the last century: They weren’t just funny—they were wonderful stylists. We can learn from them.

Writers and their critics often focus on word choices, and of course they’re important, but they’re not enough.  Mechanics and syntax are equally crucial.  As we write, and as we rewrite, we must honor the rhythm of our sentences.

 

*To make sure that “Memoirs of a Polyglot” was an actual publication, I searched the web, and it was.  His name is listed as William Gerhardie, and he apparently wrote lots of books, including God’s Fifth Column and The Memoirs of Satan. 

 

 

Enough with the Plague, Write a Limerick (Covid Post 1)

 

 

I remember when amusing yourself was not internet-dependent.  For example, my husband and I used to write limericks.  They’re not particularly good, but, unlike whatever Netflix thing I watched last night, they survive.

 

A silly old bag from Loch Lomond

Believed in a terrible omen

With chattering teeth

She fled o’er the heath

And stumbled and drowned in the gloaming

 

A near-sighted harpy from Wells

Confused all her magic and spells

She mixed up a potion

With Calamine lotion

Because of her love for the smells

 

A middle-aged woman from Guam

Sat down on a hydrogen bomb

Her feet and her face

Were completely erased

But her ass remained perfectly calm

 

[alternate ending:

 

Causing condition

Of nuclear fission

Depriving her bairn of their mom]

 

A grotty old guy from Vancouver

Employed as a furniture mover

Got horny one day

In a violent way

And made love to a customer’s Hoover

 

There was an old man in Dobb’s Ferry

Who went to the public library

He took, as his choice,

The works of James Joyce

To paper his new apiary

 

There was an old man from Rangoon

Who ate with a runcible spoon

He used his bread knife

To butter his wife

And fed her to his pet baboon

 

There was a young lady from Nimes

Who slathered herself with whipped cream

And traveled to Thierry

Dressed as a strawberry

Rendezvoused with a shortcake intime.

 

A tidy old broad from Spokane

Once fell face-first into a fan

But she was so neat

And so fast on her feet

That she caught the whole mess in a pan

 

Go ahead and write one.  It will improve your day.

My Mother; or Watching Out for Tests

My mother was my hero, and here is why.

Back in the 1950s, she was active in Sweet Adelines, the women’s equivalent of SPEBSQSA (both international barbershop singing organizations). After Brown v. Board of Education, both organizations inserted the word “white” into their bylaws to keep African-Americans from participating in championship competition.

Lots of individual chapters protested, but in the end only a handful did so in a meaningful way, by challenging the change in the by-laws and, according to Sweet Adelines, generally being “troublemakers.” My mother was president of the Providence chapter; when Providence put the issue up for a vote, its members voted unanimously to withdraw. Theirs was the first chapter to do so; they were followed by Massachusetts chapters in North Attleboro, Scituate, New Bedford, and a Canadian chapter in Orillia. This small group started its own organization—Harmony, Inc.—which has since grown internationally and continues to thrive. (Both Sweet Adelines and SPEBSQSA discreetly deleted “white” at some point.)

Barbershop music comes across to many as square and very, very white (although its origins are anything but; I grew up listening to records of the Golden Gate Quartet), so all this may seem rather quaint and inconsequential. It wasn’t. This was the Fifties: These women were housewives, file clerks, factory workers, and once a week they got to sing, and once a year they went to international conventions and sang themselves hoarse for three days straight. Singing was their passion, and giving it up was a meaningful sacrifice. And the moral courage it took to buck the system was something I witnessed as a child and never forgot.

My mother went into the fight a young, idealistic, optimistic woman; she went in expecting that of course the right would prevail, the international board would see the light, or if not, then there would be a wholesale exodus of outraged members. She learned a lot about human nature, and so did I, from watching her.

Daughters watch their mothers very closely. Once she said to me, “In life there are tests. If you’re lucky, you’ll never get one, but if you do, you may not recognize it for what it is. Always watch out for tests.” I do.

In memory of Joanne Willett, 1925-2019.

 

 

 

Mind the Bollocks

Accidentally shooting yourself in the crotch is becoming a thing, so here’s the beginning of a new list.

Yet another late-breaking update

 

Man accidentally shoots self in groin inside Buckeye Walmart

Florida man sits on gun, shoots self in groin, police say

Marion police respond after man accidentally shoots self in genitals

[Wichita] Man seriously hurt after accidentally shoots self in groin

[Nevada] Man Accidentally Shoots Himself In The Groin After Loading Gun

Colorado Football Mascot Chip Shoots Self In Groin With T-Shirt Cannon

[Zion Grove, Tennessee] Man facing charges after shooting himself in groin

[San Antonio] Man apparently shoots self in groin while trying to help woman on Loop 410

Man rushed to hospital after shooting himself in the groin with a home-made gun stuffed down the front of his pants

Police: Wanted Felon Arrested After Shooting Himself in the Groin

Police say NYC officer accidentally shoots self in groin

Man Accidentally Shoots Himself in Groin at Gun Club

Worcester man facing charges after accidentally shooting self in groin on Christmas morning

Watch Kevin Owens Shoot Himself In The Crotch In Bizarre New Year’s Accident [VIDEO]

Providence man accidentally shoots himself in crotch while sitting in bed

Man allegedly hiding drugs in butt accidentally shoots himself in testicles