A personal goal at work the last few years has been to become less reactive, less surprised, to take events in stride, to let the water roll off my wet duck back. With occasional exceptions, this approach has been helpful. When an exception does happen, I find I’m meta-surprised: surprised about the surprise.
So, it was nice consolation recently to read last year’s New Yorker profile of mentalist Derren Brown – a professional surpriser of audiences and (most awesomely) a subsequent explainer of those surprises to those audiences – and find even he’s still working through similar issues. After writing a book on Stoicism, he felt initially prepared when a seven-year relationship ended:
“The breakup was relatively amicable and light and easy,” Brown said. “And I remember feeling quite proud that I’d dealt with it all extremely well.” A few months later, though, when a guy he’d met on Tinder broke things off, Brown, as he put it, “totally went to pieces.”
For a long time, he remained puzzled by his reaction. “I fell apart over the little breakup that followed the big breakup, totally out of proportion to what it was—a decidedly un-Stoic response,” he said. “But I’ve thought about it since, and it makes sense. It’s the bit that takes you by surprise when you’ve dealt with this thing over here and put all your attention on that, and then something else sneaks in from the outside.”
Passwords, passports, umbrellas, scarves, earrings, earbuds, musical instruments, W-2s, that letter you meant to answer, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip, the can of paint you scrupulously set aside three years ago for the touch-up job you knew you’d someday need: the range of things we lose and the readiness with which we do so are staggering. Data from one insurance-company survey suggest that the average person misplaces up to nine objects a day, which means that, by the time we turn sixty, we will have lost up to two hundred thousand things. (These figures seem preposterous until you reflect on all those times you holler up the stairs to ask your partner if she’s seen your jacket, or on how often you search the couch cushions for the pen you were just using, or on that daily almost-out-the-door flurry when you can’t find your kid’s lunchbox or your car keys.) Granted, you’ll get many of those items back, but you’ll never get back the time you wasted looking for them.
People are apt to make fun of other people’s habit of talking about the weather to their neighbors in the elevator. They shouldn’t make fun. By invoking the one thing that we know we have in common with others, we throw a rope across the divide, asserting that, whatever our differences, we do share something: when it rains on one of us, it’s going to rain on the other one, too.
This fall’s Style Issue of The New Yorker wowed me in a few ways, one of which was a profile of Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele. Not only is Michele’s work in colors astounding, but he’s more humble, thoughtful and human than you might expect a global fashion leader to be.
At one point, Michele calls the cupola and oculus of the Pantheon “like a big mother.” He says: “It hugs you, with the light inside. It is a very animistic idea of God. Sometimes when you get inside there you want to cry.” But my favorite quote from Michele is a little more strange, and explains well why the Style Issue each year is always so fascinating to me:
If you think about art, art is about being made a little bit uncomfortable. When you are a kid, you always want to be in touch with something that makes you feel not comfortable. I have a machine from the seventeen-hundreds to make curly hair. You put the tip of it in the fire, and you can travel with it. It is very like a torture object. But when my nephews arrive at my apartment, they say, ‘Please, can we see the machine to make curly hair?’ There is something about discovering different things—things that make you feel curious and uncomfortable—that is very human.
The same issue offers a Ian Frazier meditation on the color of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a beautiful piece and goes to show how much detail and meaning sit under all we see. “That elusive, flickering, familiar, sea-polished shade of copper-green got into my head last year when I was standing on the roof of an apartment building in the Bronx….”
It takes me a while to read books. My eyes are too big for my eyes. But I finally got around to reading Between You & Me, by Mary Norris of New Yorker copy-editing fame. The book was thoroughly lovable for anyone who works or plays with words. At different points, Norris visits a pencil-sharpener museum and crashes a milk truck. She also devotes a whole chapter to hyphens.
In a story by Karen Russell, a boy is making fun of a girl who went to church, and asks, “How was it? . . . Delicious God-bread?” I was persuaded by another proofreader—another unique person with her own ideas and the brief to impose them—to remove the hyphen in “God-bread” and make it two words. But it bothered me without the hyphen, and later, walking back to the office after brooding over a sandwich, I realized that the analogy was not with, say, “raisin bread”: “God bread” was not studded with gods. It was God. First chance I got, I restored the hyphen in “God-bread.” Transubstantiation in a hyphen.
Upon further Googling, the usage appeared to be a deep-cut reference to Jack Kerouac’s “The Railroad Earth.” Judging by the lack of any other results, Kerouac invented the word to described life in the flophouse where he lived when he worked as a railroad brakeman. The internet revealed no other results.
I put the light out on the sad dab mad grub little diving room and hustle out into the fog of the flow, descending the creak hall steps where the old men are not yet sitting with Sunday morn papers because still asleep or some of them I can now as I leave hear beginning to disfawdle to wake in their rooms with their moans and yorks and scrapings and horror sounds, I’m going down the steps to work, glance to check time of watch with clerk cage clock.
Hard to figure etymology for a near stream-of-consciousness invention. Dawdle, maybe. Says the Online Etymology Dictionary of dawdle: “1650s, perhaps a variant of daddle ‘to walk unsteadily.’ Perhaps influenced by daw, because the bird was regarded as sluggish and silly. Not in general use until c. 1775.”
In a restaurant review: “Leave it to Fraser’s co-owner, James Truman, formerly the editorial director of Condé Nast, to spin the word ‘Nix,’ shrouding it in mysterious new meaning. In fact, it refers to a Supreme Court case from 1893 in which it was deemed that tomatoes should be considered a vegetable, because they are eaten for dinner, not dessert.”
From a passage this winter about squash partners, within a long-read about taking up serious squash in middle age. I know nothing about squash but a decent amount about teammates and a little about age.
To play your very best, to make a Houdini-like escape from impossible conditions, you need a partner who handcuffs you and stuffs you in a mail sack, then hurls it into the river. He should also keep his mouth mostly shut, except to say “Nice shot.” The box you’re both in is too small—twenty-one feet wide by thirty-two feet deep—and the necessary do-si-do-ing too close to admit anyone who blocks or bickers. When you find a solid partner, you settle into an oppositional symbiosis, where you improve by trying to crush each other.
I know we are still in the first days of February. After temperatures were scarf-less early in the week, bone chills re-emerged last night. But I find myself favoriting the warmth in what I read — Jhumpa Lahiri learning Italian, Cord Jefferson writing about his love for his mother, Washingtonian magazine noting (and capturing visually, if briefly) acres open city land and beautiful city-ancient buildings before they’re gone or disfigured, and, as usual, some poems.
A great way to start the day other day was Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” She read it at Obama’s first inauguration. People didn’t love it. I loved it was a way to start my day. Italics are Alexander’s:
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Recently in my feeds as well have been two catch-you-off-guard poems about desire: Mary Jo Bang’s “Definitely” (“What is desire / But the hardwire argument given / To the mind’s unstoppable mouth”) and Heather Christle’s “Pursuits” (“It only gets worse / A girl’s gotta eat”).
And I’ve been catching up on The New Yorker too. Catching up for real. Before the holidays, my backlog had hit three or four months, and the physical stack was so sad. But I began digging over Christmas and have kept the pages turning. I’m now on the current issue. And it’s a double! I’m going to be a week ahead! Maybe. If I finish it today. You can’t count your Remnick chickens before they’re read.
Anyway, here’s the start of Hagit Grossman’s “On Friendship,” a poem of common life and so satisfactorily so, in the latest issue:
If a friend calls out to you late at night from beneath your window
Never send him on his way. And if you’ve sent him away and still
Insist on rigid rules, regain your composure after a moment
And run to the window and shout his name: “Come, Merhav!
Come back! I’ve got some corn cooking! Come eat something.”
Last but not entirely, I’m two issues behind on Poetry (after Conde Zero, so soon, I promise), but two favorites from the December issue were Caroline Bird’s “The Amnesty,” which packed so much metaphor and love in so little space, and Nate Marshall “Harold’s Chicken Shack #86,” which wrings Northwestern, names, race, and poverty from half a quote in a newspaper story.
Marshall also has a good one in the issue about Oregon Trail (“my first venture west was in Windows 98 / or Independence, Missouri…”), and the Poetry Foundation site turns up him penning a “Harold’s Chicken Shack #1.” Maybe the “#86” of the Northwestern poem is poetic license, but I hope there are 84 in between. I’d like to read them.
Related: The Springsteen song “Amnesty” made me think of. No one will put this song on a greatest-hits compilation, or any kind of compilation that comes to mind. But I’ve always found it strange and special, the best song on a not-great album. Heard it playing during a nice dinner at a nice restaurant last fall — Garrison, on Barracks Row — and found it fitting.
Related: Edward T. Wheeler writes for Commonweal about his prison ministry. “I was retired, convalescing from a five-month hospital stay, and needed a focus for my free time. … Soon I—a former high-school English teacher and long-ago Jesuit seminarian—was involved in a biweekly writing seminar for GED students, then a book discussion club, and finally a life-skills course sponsored by the state university’s extension division.”
They say Twitter will begin an algorithmically ordered timeline next week. They say it will be optional. I’m glad for the latter.