On Waiting

Thought for the day: Why is every public building in Britain so stuffy and overheated while every private home is so draughty and underinsulated? Take our house, for example. You could drive several small turbines on the chill wind pouring through the enormous gaps between our windows and their fittings. We could probably generate enough electricity that way to heat the house for a year. But last week, while waiting for the man in J. Shiner and Sons to retrieve my brass caster from the basement of his shop, I was practically sweating to death. My throat was parched. I was just about to start peeling off the layers I had piled on to protect me from the biting March wind when he reappeared and I knew that soon I’d be back in the refreshing cold again.

I had gone to J. Shiner and Sons to pick up a new caster for a footstool that my wife, a painter, textile designer and increasingly skilled upholsterer, was refurbishing. There were two other people ahead of me in the shop but just the one man to take care of them. He was a small, frail-looking man whose polite, professional manner didn’t quite seem to match the tight-fitting football shirt he wore. Each of the customers before me had a very specific request—they needed a brass fitting of a particular size and shape—and, strangely, they each needed casters like myself. The man behind the counter (presumably a descendant of J. Shiner, who founded the shop on this site in 1879 or thereabouts) listened patiently to their descriptions and then disappeared to the basement. I heard the sound of his footsteps fade away as he walked downstairs, then silence. I didn’t hear anything from him again for several minutes until the clomp, clomp, clomp that signaled he was coming back upstairs. When he did reappear, he held in his hands several shiny brass casters carefully wrapped in white tissue paper. Each time it was exactly what the customer wanted.While the man was gone, I had plenty of time to wait (and become increasingly oppressed by the air in the stuffy, overheated shop). Waiting is a strange business. It happens so often, and often so imperceptibly, every day. There are mundane forms of waiting–for your browser to load, for your child to finish swimming lessons, for the lights to change. And there are existential forms of waiting: for an opportunity, for a sign, for a second chance. Waiting should never be a wasted, though, which is why this aphorism from John Milton’s Paradise Lost appeals to me so much:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

What purpose was I serving as I waited for my brass caster in J. Shiner and Sons? Well, it was a poignant reminder of the overwhelming amount of stuff in the world and the amazing fact that somewhere someone out there is an expert in all of it. The shop was festooned with fixtures, and looking around I saw different types of letterbox, dozens of doorknobs, a clutch of knockers next to a row of drapery rods, the occasional lamp or lantern, a run of house numbers in different sizes and fonts, and boxes and boxes of variously sized screws–all of it in brass. No casters on display, though; they must all be in the basement. And the guy behind the counter knew absolutely everything about all of it. When he gave me my caster, for example, he explained that they didn’t make the model I needed anymore (the footstool is pretty old) and the one he gave me had a larger wheel but would still fit the leg of the stool. He even provided the tiny screws I needed without me having to ask. He had similar stories to share with his other customers, either some technical detail about the casters or an anecdote about how the neighborhood around his shop was changing. In my haste to escape the sultry shop–as well as the more general hurry in which I too often rush to get things done–I was reminded that such friendly, informative little encounters are always worth the wait.

On Sliding into Second Base as a Metaphor for Life

The idea is to make your upper body evaporate while your lower limbs thin into twin javelins. First, commit yourself totally to this risk. Then run as fast as you can, straight ahead. Don’t look back. Don’t look over your shoulder for the ball that may arrive before you. Launch yourself into space just as you near the base; the final leg of this journey must be a leap of faith. Lean back and enjoy it. But stay close to the ground. Hit the dirt like a flat stone skimming the surface of a lake. Sometimes, it’s wise to dissemble: slide to one side of the bag and hook it with your foot as you pass. Perplexing your opponent is never a mistake. As you fall, throw your arms into the air; time to surrender and say one last prayer. You’ve had your chance and taken it. The outcome is out of your hands.

Is this not a metaphor for life, good advice for getting out of a scrape, for surviving a close shave? You’re out there on your own. You’ve managed to find a safe place, however precarious. But you’ve got to move on. Often, someone coming up behind will give you a lift. But if not, you’ve got to do it yourself. In the act of stealing second base, you make it wholly your own. Miraculously, no one expects you to give it back. They respect you for it. Stand up, brush off the dirt, and look around. You’re already halfway home.

On Watching ‘The War of the Worlds’

Last Saturday night I watched The War of the Worlds with my sons. This was the 1953 George Pal version, not the recent Spielberg remake. The boys were very excited. We had prepared a little cinema in the living room, dimmed the lights. I even allowed them to eat chocolate while they watched, an unheard-of luxury. My younger son’s glasses had been slightly mangled in a sword fight with his brother earlier in the evening, so they rested dramatically askew on his nose as if he was posing for a Picasso portrait.

I’ve been enthusiastically sharing—and consequently, rediscovering—my love for science fiction with the boys as they get older. It’s tremendous fun to share with them some of my favorite flicks, especially the classic B movies I used to watch every Saturday and Sunday afternoon as a kid: Earth versus the Flying Saucers, When Worlds Collide, Destination Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still, which to this day remains one of my most beloved films. I even turned them on to The Prisoner, the cult 1960s British spy series, which used to be on PBS late at night after Monty Pythons Flying Circus when I was I teenager.The War of the Worlds is a truly awful film. It is filled with all the romantic and jingoistic cliches of the 1950s without any of the veiled anti-McCarthite symbology. The hero is as stiff as a board, and the heroine never appears without screaming or bursting into tears. But I’ve always loved the film because of the devastating death ray and those sleek, elegant Martian spaceships (of which I am reminded every time I see an art deco Paris metro station), and because it occasioned my first real confrontation with authority.

I was in the second grade at a Catholic primary school, so I was about eight years old. (The same age at which I discovered aphorisms in Reader’s Digest.) I had just seen The War of the Worlds on television, and somehow the subject came up in Sister Edmunda’s class. I was terrified of Sister Edmunda. She was a mean and unpredicatable teacher. She was very elderly and would often repeat things in class or contradict something she had just said or teach us things that even we as eight-year-olds knew were wrong. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that she was senile. I just knew that she was a bit crazy, really scary and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.

Anyway, somehow The War of the Worlds came up in class and Sister Edmunda asked: Why did the Martians die? My hand shot up immediately because I had just seen the film and that final image—the dying Martian’s moist green limb, with three suction cups for fingers, creeping from the spaceship and then falling still—was so vivid in my mind. But Sister Edmunda called on someone else, and that person offered meekly: Because of prayer? Yes! Sister Edmunda announced. Because God answered the people’s prayers. This didn’t sound right to me, though, so I tenatively raised my hand and Sister Edmunda acknowledged me with a slight nod. I think the Martians died because they were poisoned by something in the atmosphere, I said. Sister Edmunda’s face darkened. She strode toward my desk in her stooped way and fixed me with her furious, baleful gaze. No, she barked, glowering above my chair. The Martians died because of prayer. Then she went on to lecture me on how God is all-powerful and all-loving and how he vanquished those nasty Martians for us. She then made me stand facing the corner in the front of the classroom as punishment for my heresy.

But I knew she was wrong. The climax of the film comes as the defeated humans cower in a church praying for a miracle, but the Martians died because their immune systems couldn’t withstand our earthly bacteria. That’s a preposterous oversight for a race so technically advanced, but there you have it. The narrator does say at the very end that God in his wisdom provided these bacteria for just such a purpose, but I didn’t believe it. They died because the bacteria got them, and that was it. I never forgot or forgave Sister Edmunda for the humiliation she put me through for saying what I knew to be true. It makes me think of Henry David Thoreau’s dictum:

Say what you have to say, not what you ought.

Nobody, especially kids, should ever be taught anything else. When I asked my sons what they thought of the film, I was very glad to hear them say they thought it was great but a little too “holy.”

Another Road…

Being an addendum to my Feb. 10 posting entitled ‘On Roads’…

I have a little black book in which I write down or paste in all the aphorisms I read and want to remember. It’s vaguely organized by aphorist, but I usually know where in the bulging book to look for something, usually even if I’m not sure who wrote it. While reading some Friedrich Nietzsche sayings in search of something I thought he wrote about iconoclasm, I came across this, which really belongs with the posting on roads:

One day we reach our goal—and now we point with pride to the long journeys we took to reach it. In truth we did not notice we were travelling. But we got so far because at each point we believed we were at home.

On Being An Amateur

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… A violinist is performing a fiendishly difficult solo at Carnegie Hall. His bow arm is a blur; sweat is pouring down his brow. He finishes with a flourish and the crowd goes wild. “Encore! Encore!” they shout. So he plays the same piece again, and when he finishes the second time the crowd once again erupts into applause and demands more. They’re insatiable. So he plays the same piece again. When he finishes the third time, and the crowd again calls for an encore, he demures. “I really should finish now,” he says. Then a voice comes from out of the crowd: “No, you’ll play it til you get it right!”

I’m certainly no virtuoso violinist, but so often over the past few weeks I’ve felt like an absolute beginner, an amateur. I periodically used to feel this way as an editor. Someone would suggest a new angle to a story, another editor would add a deft touch to a piece, a designer would select a great picture I had overlooked—and I would think: Why didn’t I think of that? You would suppose that after practicing the same craft for nigh on 17 years, I would have perfected it by now. But there’s never nothing left to learn. And familiarity doesn’t breed contempt as much as complacency. You do something every day so you think you know how to do it. But sometimes a lot of experience just gets in the way. Nowadays I feel like a beginner because I’m at the beginning, of a new phase in my career at least. That long, lonely walk back to the drawing board concentrates the mind wonderfully. You have to face the possibility that you really don’t know much after all.There are black spots, for sure. The prospects, or lack thereof, often seem daunting. Sometimes, I think I’m too old for this shit. But in my better moments I know that’s not spoken in the spirit of a true amateur. Rudyard Kipling wrote:

As soon as you find you can do anything, do something you can’t.

That’s good advice if you want to be a perpetual beginner, a professional amateur. The job description has less to do with what you do than how you do it. The word amateur is derived from the Latin amator, or lover, and its original meaning is: to do something for the love of it rather than the money, the perks, the prestige, the distraction from other things you’d rather not think about, or whatever. To be an amateur is to be in love with what you do. It’s not bad work if you can get it. I find I’m doing more and more of something I love—writing. (Now I just need to figure out how to get paid for it.) And that’s why Kipling’s little admonition is always in the back of my mind. As soon as I’ve written anything, I want to write something I can’t—or at least, something I haven’t written yet. You gotta love that.

On Roads

A friend recently told me this story. He was driving through rural Vermont a couple of years ago when he came to a crossroads. There were two signposts, each pointing in a different direction but both bearing the name of his destination. So he pulled the car over, got out and approached a local man who was leaning against a fence. “Does it matter which way I go here?” he asked. “Not to me it don’t,” the man replied.

Crossroads isn’t the right metaphor for the point I’ve reached since losing my job. There are too few potential turning points at a crossroads. This feels more like a node on the Internet, with hundreds or thousands of avenues branching off it. Too many, in fact, to make a choice feasible. It’s like the plasma ball my son got for Christmas. The generator shoots arcs of static electricity, dozens of them, against the sides of the crystal. But when you touch the glass they all coalesce and stream toward your finger in a single, bright blue mass. At some point, probably sooner rather than later, I’ll have to start channeling all those bristling possibilities into a handful (at most) of real opportunities. But not just yet. It’s exciting, and frightening, to see all those options flashing.Even so, I’ve already begun to narrow things down. A few days ago, I passed up the opportunity to edit another magazine. It would have been a great job, making a magazine on a very timely and interesting topic. But it would have meant moving to another continent, something I’m just not prepared to do at this point. After declining the job, I suddenly felt a surge of anxiety. What had I done? Why did I pass on the chance to edit a magazine again and regain financial security? It would have been the safe, maybe even the smart, thing to do. And that’s part of the reason I didn’t do it. If I’m ever going to explore any of the roads that have opened up since I was made redundant, I’ll have to resist the temptation to go down the first road that looks familiar. You can’t expect a change of scenery if you never veer from the beaten track. But it’s hard (is it stupid, too?) to willingly remain in uncertainty, whether it has to do with your job or anything else in life. It’s difficult to stay on a path when you can only see a few steps in front of you. And there is always the risk that the road you finally end up choosing will lead nowhere, and you’ll always regret not taking the more traveled way.It put me in mind of an aphorism by Antonio Porchia:

They will say you are on the wrong road, if it is your own.

No one has criticized the road I’ve been on since losing my job. In fact, I’ve received far more congratulations than commiserations since it happened, especially from people like me who are in their forties. I was surprised to hear how many people secretly wish it would happen to them. But there is a very strong voice inside my head berating me for not going back to what I know. I remember walking through the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1989, just a few days before I left the North American continent for the European one. I laughed when I saw a sign that read: KEEP ON THE PATH. I had just finished selling the few things I owned to finance my trip to Europe. I was heading into the great unknown. If there was a path, I sure as hell didn’t see it. But I instinctively felt I was going in the right direction. Just like now. To a large extent, you make your own road by travelling on it. And you only really know where you’re going when you get there.

Even More Assorted Aphorisms

Being the latest batch of wonderfully wise witticisms sent to me via the Web…

From Matt, my cousin, presumably explaining why he hasn’t been in touch in more than 12 years:

You wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of you if you knew how seldom they do.

From Gavin Bolus:

The hypocrisy of people who say that hypocrisy makes them sick makes me sick.

From P.D. Willson:

Nepotism is best kept in the family.

From Stevens Koziol:

I only know what I know, I don’t know what I don’t know.

From Ed Ciolkosz, quoting Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude; not exactly an aphorism but well worth reading and remembering:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

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.