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.

Tales from the Vienna Woods

But one thing Le Meridien does have that I like is aphorisms. There was one right there on the wall of the lobby as I walked in:

We play roles in life to such an extent that all we would have to do is stop playing to create theater
—Ryszard Cieslak (Polish actor)

The saying struck me as both appropriate and apt. Appropriate because it feels right to me to have a building (a hotel, a restuarant, a house) annouce what it’s all about the moment you step in. Apt because the design of Le Meridien struck me as pure role-playing.

Signalling the presiding spirit of a place through a saying is an ancient tradition; those consulting the oracle at Delphii had to read “Know thyself” inscribed above the entrance, and I remember a sailing trip through the Netherlands many years ago when I was just learning Dutch and saw “Elke morgen, nieuwe zorgen” (Every morning, new worries) inscribed above the front door to a house. Both statements tell you exactly what to expect should you pass through those doors.

So imagine my delight when, sipping apple juice the next morning during breakfast, I discovered the following saying on the little paper doilie under my glass:

Water is the only drink for a wise man
—Henry David Thoreau

That’s probably the only thing Thoreau wrote that I ever disagreed with…

Sensing I was surrounded by aphorisms, I went looking for them in my room and found the following:

On the “Do Not Disturb” sign:

My hours are peaceful centuries
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the cover of the Meridien Hotel & Resort Directory:

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page
—St. Augustine

The blue light may have been nauseating, but being in the company of Thoreau, Emerson and St. Augustine kind of made up for it. And I began to think which aphorisms I would choose if I had to place one on all the objects in my house…

On the CD player:

We are the music while the music lasts
—T.S. Eliot

On the bookshelf:

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents

Above the door to my kids’ rooms:

Children sweeten labors; but they make misfortunes more bitter
—Francis Bacon

On a Post-It Note, permanently affixed to my forehead:

Thought is life
—Wallace Stevens

Le Meridien, on the Opernring in Vienna, is not exactly my kind of hotel. It’s one of those self-consciously “designed” establishments, with back-lit photos embedded in the walls and strange tubes of blue, red and yellow light placed strategically around every open space. Even the steambath had a pulsating slab of chromaticism in it. My room had a soft blue light in it, too, the kind of light used in roadside restrooms to prevent junkies from shooting up in them. It’s a queasy kind of light that makes me jetlagged just to look at it. The desk in my room had a glass plate in the top, under which were four peppers. Don’t ask me why. It took me five minutes to figure out how to turn the shower on.

More Assorted Aphorisms

Being a fresh installment of some aphorisms sent to me via my website, both conducive to contemplation and inducive of merriment…

A variation on a theme of Lazarus Long (see Tuesday, Nov. 15 post), by Gary Freedman:

It is better to capitulate than never.

From Christopher Dee, another wonderful Emersonism:

You teach your boy to walk, but he learns to run himself.

From Lynn Johnston, one from Gandh

You must be the change you wish to see in the world

Einstein was very quick with a quip. Here are two, the first from Martin Vincent and the second from Tim Saternow:

Life is an illusion—albeit a persistent one

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources

Sue Brown:

Health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die

From Kathy Schank (my sister), who read this on a bulletin board in high school:

In its innermost depths youth is lonlier than old age

And, finally, something from Ed Huelke, which hopefully does not refer to me:

He uses quotations in the same way a drunk uses lampposts—more for support than illumination.

A Short Discourse on Lazarus Long

Lazarus Long, also known as Woodrow Wilson Smith, is a recurring character in a clutch of novels by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. I read Heinlein’s classic “Stranger in a Strange Land” as a teenager and immediately grokked its iconoclastic, counterculture message. It wasn’t until much later that I realized Heinlein’s prose is extremely aphoristic in a gruff, ornery sort of way; he often punctuates descriptive passages with provocative little pronouncements about the nature of good government, the evils of organized religion or the joys of sex. His sayings have a frontier feel: blunt, graphic, no-nonsense.

That might explain why some of Heinlein’s best lines are put into the mouth of Lazarus Long, a real interstellar pioneer if there ever was one. Long is the oldest member of the human race (one of the books he appears in is called “Methuselah’s Children”) by dint of some nifty genetic engineering and his own unfailing instinct for survival. He’s sired countless children, explored new solar systems and planets, and distinguished himself for bravery in interplanetary warfare. Lazarus Long has seen it all and survived to tell the tale, through a string of zesty, zingy aphorisms.As a character, Long is a weird combination of Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain: tough as old boots on the outside, a roughrider over received wisdom, but concealing a bright and piercing wit within. He’s also got a whiff of Walt Whitman about him; he’s singing the song of himself assured in the knowledge that everyone else knows the tune too. A short selection of his aphorisms, which bear up well under long scrutiny:

Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

A motion to adjourn is always in order.

It is better to copulate than never.

You live and learn. Or you don’t live long.

Assorted Aphorisms

Being a regular posting of some of the sayings sent to me via my website, helpfully annotated and wonderfully instructive…

During the signing session after a talk I gave this week in London, a man asked me to autograph a copy of my book for his son. I always try to write a personalized aphorism when I’m signing a book, so I asked the man to tell me something about his son. He thought for a moment and then said, “Well, he’s a teenager.” I was momentarily stumped; I didn’t know any aphorisms about teenagers. Then I remembered someone had sent me a saying on this subject just recently, and wrote from memory:

You can talk to teenagers; you just can’t tell them anything.

Apologies are due to Martin Goldstein, who actually wrote:

You can always tell a teenager, you just can’t tell them much.

Which puts me in mind of Yoda’s advice to the young Luke Skywalker, sent by David P. Calvert:

Do or do not. There is no try.

Yoda’s cryptic quip plays off the same kind of dichotomy as this piece of advice, proferred to Renee Horvarth by an old woman from Oklahoma upon hearing that Renee intended to remain friends with the man with whom she had just broken off a romance:

You can’t throw out your garbage and keep it too.

The Strange Case of Patience Worth

I am indebted to Amos Oliver Doyle for bringing the aphorisms of Patience Worth to my attention. Hers is a strange tale, and her aphorisms are stranger still…

Patience Worth was born in England in 1649, and travelled to America with some of the early English settlers when she was in her thirties. By her own account, she had a fiesty, witty personality and held some unconventional views for her time, especially about religion. She was killed in a skirmish with Native Americans. At least, that’s what Pearl Lenore Curran says Patience Worth told her over a period of about 25 years, beginning in 1912. Curran, a St. Louis, Missouri housewife who died in 1937, claimed to have been in telepathic contact with Patience Worth some 260 years after the latter’s death—and to have taken posthumous dictation, with the help of a ouiji board, of Worth’s poems, novels and “proverbs.”

You don’t have to believe in communication with the dead to be interested in this apparent psychic collaboration; Patience’s words of wisdom are worth a quick look. Proverbs is the right word to describe them, too, since the language is archaic and the themes very Old Testament. In his book The Case of Patience Worth, Walter Franklin Prince writes: “… almost immediately after Patience Worth announced herself … she began to make replies, which in pith, wit, wisdom and generally in terseness, resemble the proverbs of old time.” My favorite relates to Worth’s penchant for heresy:

A fiery tongue belongs to one worth burning.

Other sayings are just bizarre. I have no idea what to make of:

Should’st I present thee with a pumpkin, would’st thou desire to count the seeds?

Sometimes, Worth/Curran achieve a bracing clarity:

It taketh a wise man to be a good fool.

That’s not a bad aphorism. But William Blake, another English aphorist who chatted with the spirits of the deceased, said it earlier and better:

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.