On Redundancy

Redundancy is one of those words that, semantically at least, should exist apart from its prefix. Like overwhelmed. If you see a particularly beautiful sunset, you can be overwhelmed. But if the sunset is just mediocre, maybe you’re just whelmed. Or if it’s not very beautiful at all, maybe you’re underwhelmed. Same with redundant. The word means ‘more than enough’, ‘excessive’, ’superfluous’. When you are ‘made redundant,’ you are quite literally rendered superfluous. But it seems like there should be a definition for ‘dundant’ as well; maybe it would be something like ‘just about enough’, ‘more or less right’, or even simply ‘fluous’ (sans super). If you’re from Scotland and are just a little bit more than enough, then you could be wee-dundant.

When enough is enough was a major preoccupation of the Stoics. The Stoics have gotten a bad rap of late because people seem to think they advocated a cold, callous approach to life. When used as an adjective, ’stoic’ is too often a synonym for emotionless, indifferent. The Stoics actually never urged people to forsake their feelings. What they did urge was a kind of pro-active resignation: Shit happens; sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t; resistance is futile, so accept what has happened and then make the best of it. It was ‘enough’ for the Stoics to maintain an internal equanimity regardless of what shit was going down around them. As Epicurus said:

Nothing is sufficient for the man to whom the sufficient is too little.

Now into my fourth week of superfluity I’ve discovered there’s more than enough to keep me busy. On Friday evenings, I’ve been taking my youngest son to choir practice. This was something I was never able to do before because I always worked late on Friday nights. I sit in the back of the church, marveling at how such rowdy boys can have such beautiful, ethereal voices. I think how lucky I am to be here listening to my son sing like an angel. I’m going to stop writing so much about losing my job now. That would be redundant. I’m going to write more about things like my son’s choir practice. Overwhelming.

Make Your Own Aphorisms

Back in November, I was on the BBC Radio 4 programme Word of Mouth to talk about my history of the aphorism. On that show, writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen launched a competition for listeners to compose and send in their own aphorisms. This week, they had me back to judge the entries. Listeners sent in a lively and witty bunch of sayings. The short list and winner will be announced on the programme on Friday, Jan. 27 at 4:00 p.m. You can listen at any time, though, by going to the Word of Mouth site and clicking on “Listen again”. To read what listeners have been saying about aphorisms, and to join the conversation, go to the Word of Mouth “Message board” in the site’s right-hand navigation column.

The aphorism is probably the most accessible literary form ever invented. Anyone can write them, and everyone has a clutch of favorites. Among the aphorisms sent to me recently, my favorites are somewhat pastoral, including this one sent by Lyn, by an unknown author:

Life is easier when you plow around the stump

and this from Debra, whose grandfather used to say this while teaching her father how to cut wood:

Let the saw do the work.

Composing and sharing aphorisms is a popular pasttime. Art Carey, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is a collector of sayings and recently published acolumn that contained lots of words of wisdom from his readers. Cape Cod Times staff reporter and syndicated columnist Sean Gonsalves did the same in one of his recent articles. He kindly references my book, but also stresses a point that I think is crucial: aphorisms are as much about doing as about reading. So check out these pieces—and start composing your own!

On Defying Gravity

A long time ago, in a place that now seems very far away, I was in a relationship with a single mother who had a six-year-old son. Her son was going to spend a few weeks in the summer with his father, and I went with her to the airport to see him off. The boy was very excited to be travelling on his own, so there was a kind of festive atmosphere at the gate. When the flight attendant came to escort the boy to the plane, though, his mother started to cry. As the boy walked away down the tunnel, I put my arms around her to comfort her. As I did so, one of her tears fell on my wrist. I was shocked to realize then that I had never felt another person’s tears before, and that they were warm.

Not long after that, the relationship ended. She lived just a few blocks from me, and for a long time I avoided going anywhere near her flat. Places acquire their own emotional gravity as a result of what we experience there, and every time I got near her place I felt dragged back into memories and feelings I preferred not to think about. It was the psychological equivalent of space flight: I had to burn a lot of fuel to escape the pull of that place; if I didn’t, I knew that I would crash and burn.It’s always been that way for me. To this day, there are places in the neighborhood where I grew up that fill me with depression and despair. Visits to my old university, on the other hand, are always happy occasions. Lately, I avoid travelling to the place where I used to work; the shock of redundancy is still a little too close for comfort. A few years ago, as part of my research for my history of the aphorism, I visited Walden Pond for the first time, the place where Henry David Thoreau wrote a book that changed my life when I first read it as a teenager. I had mixed feelings about going. The place existed in my mind as a kind of sacred shrine, and I was wary of being disappointed when I actually got there. As I stood on the spot where Thoreau’s cabin stood, now marked by a pile of stones brought by pilgrims like myself, I wept.

The gravitational pull of places hasn’t lessened over the years as much as my ability to keep my distance has increased. That’s a source of both sorrow and consolation. Like Benjamin Franklin wrote:

Nothing dries sooner than a tear.

After the Funeral

Telomeres—they are the fraying shoelaces of life, its slowly sputtering fuse. Located on the tips of our chromosomes, telomeres are little bits of genetic material that play a key role in cell division, allowing new blood, bone, skin and other types of cells to reproduce. Trouble is, every time a cell divides to make more of itself, its telomeres become shorter. Once they become too short, that cell begins to fail. The telomeres’ gradual unravelling may explain why we age, become sick and die.

That’s what was going through my head in the airport on the way back from the funeral, when my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter asked why Uncle Nico was “in the box.” Because he died, I said. Why? she asked. Because he was old and his heart got sick, I answered. Sickness is something my daughter understands, but she associates it mainly with vomiting since that’s what usually happens when she gets the stomach bug that sweeps through the school system with every change of season. So she ran over to the little boy she had befriended in the lounge and loudly informed him that, “Uncle Nico died coz he was puking and that’s why he’s in the box.”The next thing she wanted to know, though, was when Uncle Nico would be getting out of the box. Ah, I said, he won’t be getting out of the box. Why? she asked. Because he died, I said. But where did he go? she asked. I didn’t have an answer to that, and I didn’t want to invoke a religious explanation. It’s odd the fictions I’m willing to perpetuate. I have no problem pretending to my children that Santa Claus exists, but somehow at that moment I couldn’t get the words ‘He’s in heaven’ across my lips. I’m happy for my kids to believe in Father Christmas but don’t want them thinking there is another father whom they’ll meet in the afterlife. Finally, I came up with an analogy that worked. The box is like an airplane, I said. When you die, you get in the box and it takes you on a trip. No one knows where you go, and you never come back. That seemed to satisfy her, or maybe she just got bored, because she suddenly ran off to play with her friend.

Francis Bacon was a poignant observer of the parent-child relationship:

Children sweeten labours; but they make misfortunes more bitter.

There is definitely nothing sweeter than seeing my daughter’s face as she rushes into my arms when I come home from work; when I used to come home from work, that is. That always made the day’s travails more than worth it. But there’s also nothing more bitter than the thought of her suffering because of something I did or something that happened to me. The biggest fear I have about joblessness is utterly, frighteningly primal: How will I provide for my kids? Waiting for the plane, I watched my daughter racing around the lounge, knowing that our telomeres were flaking away like the ash at the end of a cigarette. What better, more bittersweet thing can I do than bask in that faint but wonderful glow?

Deaths and Entrances

People instinctively resort to aphorisms when they’re trying to cheer you up or comfort you. After I told friends that I had lost my job, a lot of people lifted my spirits by quoting a variation on the theme of, ‘When one door closes, another one opens.’ I was amazed at how that saying has embedded itself in so many different minds, and it made me think of an aphorism written by a friend of mine:

“Every death has a door if you can dance.”

Losing your job unexpectedly, like any major life transition, is a kind of death. A part of your life is irrevocably gone, and you yourself are gone from the working lives of your colleagues. The process of coming to terms with unemployment is also like bereavement: shock, disbelief, anger, grief, acceptance. The link was enhanced for me when, just a few days after I lost my job, I heard that a mentor of mine—the man who had pointed me in the direction of my first job in journalism, in fact—had died suddenly. He suffered a heart attack while out riding his bike, and that was it. How weird, I thought, that the man who helped me get my first journalistic job should pass away just as I lost the best journalistic job I ever had. I felt shocked, sad, forlorn. I’ll never have the benefit of his advice again.

But I can imagine exactly what he would have said. He would have sat me down in a comfortable corner, rubbed his hands together as if he was about to enjoy a sumptuous meal, and then peppered me with questions about what happened, what I thought about it, and what I intended to do next. He would have had a thousand different ideas and suggestions and a list of names and phone numbers to go with them. He would have said that the occasional professional death is no bad thing. Mourn if you must, but keep dancing—and don’t wait too long before starting on your next incarnation. Sometimes, you need a door slammed in your face before you can hear opportunity knock.