Monday, January 25, 2010

Let's hear it for proctology!

When you look back on your behavior in high school and the first year or so of what you have come to think of as the college experience, you realize how tolerant you have grown. The awareness can't help reminding you of Mark Twain's observations about how the older he grew, the more he'd come to realize how wise and judicious his father had become.

Random memories of yourself interacting with peers, faculty, and parents bring you the same reaction you get when you return to a book or a particular author for which you felt a strong connection at the time. The reaction is a kind of bewilderment that you could not have seen through the artifice. Should you chance upon such a work or such an author with the realization that you not only found the book and author admirable but as well worthy of emulation, you are left hitchhiking at a crossroads. Do you merely shake your head in amused tolerance, or do you try to package that memory and go with all deliberate speed to some local recycling center where you hope to leave it off without being seen?

The discovery of something you'd written back in those distant days leaves you no choice but to opt for tolerance up on a plateau with Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and perhaps even Mother Teresa.

In both your behavior and your writing, you'd become an amalgam of Norman Mailer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, with a dash of Becket, Maugham, and Dorothy Parker thrown in, openly scornful of those who were more moderate in their behavior and less likely to be pugnacious or rude or both. You can toss off much of this with an insouciant shrug these days, comfortable in your embrace of writing and behavior styles. You have even reached the point where, in a work now in progress, two characters are built around individuals you disdain in real life, yet in both cases, you have begun to nudge the characters along the path of redemption and empathy.

This glorious schism resident within your own personal history is given a dusting off and pleasant surprise when, from time to time, you hear from one of your old associates and the talk gets around to incidents that kept you each alive and admirable in the eyes of the other. You got me reading Schopenhauer, a recent contactee told you. Not only that, I remember that time we got lost biking around Griffith Park until you were able to find that Frank Lloyd Wright house you wanted me to see. You said, I did? Oh, man, he said, you sure did. Another voice from the past reminded you of your guiding him to the early (78 rpm) records of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano. The discovery of a box of things you'd written, published and forgotten, along with a batch of letters written when you were staying variously near Seattle and in the downtown portion of Districto Federal, the DF in Mexico, D.F., all a treasure from your past kept for you by your sister, have a pretty good average of things for which you can demonstrate some pride of understanding.

The system works both ways, in that you still recall the arrival in the mail of A Hundred Years of Solitude with a note from a college chum saying in so many words, This book might help you become less of an asshole. Whatever you were at the time, you fell on the novel with the conviction that it contained one or more marvelous secrets which, as you think about it, is your goal in your reading, looking for the helpful secrets. Machado de Asisi's momentous Epitaph of a Small Winner was seminal in that direction, leading you to the sense that with each book you read and each friendship you engage you may discover secrets that will make you less of an asshole. By no means are you lacking ego supplement to the point where, on wakening each morning, you greet yourself, Hi, asshole, what are we going to accomplish today? You do try to set an agenda which, beginning the night before, you look forward to with brio and anticipation, checking in from time to time to see if there are any traces of asshole in your behavior, but that is another matter.

Similarly, you do try to provide substance for your friends and students and all those who stop in to read such things as you publish as a part of your venture in life.

An envelope appears in your mailbox addressed to Sr. Don Shelly Lowenkopf, the writer quite fluent in Spanish and also addressing respect and devotion with a mild humor, reminding you that with your temper, impatience, and rampant enthusiasms, it is just as possible to fall back into habits that may not be so old as you suppose. You could, without hope, curiosity, enthusiasm to guide you become an analog of T.H. White's The Once and Future King and become addressed as The Once and Future Asshole.

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