Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fringe Benefits

When you return to this at some later date, browsing for insights, material, descriptions, flashes of energy with which to infuse some literary broth gone a bit tame or stale, you will probably note a defensiveness or perhaps self-pity, in any case a step or two beyond the self-deprecation you normally wear. You will work at removing such traces; the awareness of them at the outset is typical of the way you begin to essay the current state of being. Defensiveness and self-pity are not your usual game although beginning with a theme and working through with it is, indeed, a tactic in your usual game.


You live on the fringes, largely by design, sometimes because of accidental and wonderful chance. At the moment and for the past ten or so years, you have lived in a small cottage between two large estates. In describing it, you often refer to it as the slave quarters, in all likelihood a cottage for the estate manager or head groundskeeper of Stonehedge, the estate a few hundred yards to the south of you. It is an old building, a wood frame probably from the 1930s, a few add-ons here and there and, most recently, because of an elaborate barter involving a first-generation red Ford Mustang convertible, a refurbished laundry room and bathroom with a spacious shower, and a sturdy-but-basic two-door wardrobe closet. Even as you write this, you can see evidence of at least three coats of paint over the original, age-darkened wood. There is an anemic, mustard-colored coat followed by at least two attempts to make the rooms seem larger than they are by means of a white finish. There are indications here and there of Sally's impatience at not being able to get inside or outside, depending on her whim, which is to say there are scratch patterns at the appropriate level for a thirty-five-pound dog. Some shelves were painted top and bottom, but others reflect laziness or cynicism on the part of the painter.

Looking at the defining details of the house causes you to regard yourself, the old metaphor of hey, a house is like a human body, right? You, for instance, do not have all the body parts you were born with, beginning with hair, certainly the wisdom teeth, but not to forget a few others, and oh, how about the original hip joints, to say nothing of a few millimeters of tissue here and there because of a Type-III tumor than had to be given its eviction notice six-and-a-half years ago.

As the house is between estates, you are between careers, both of which were engaged in and enhanced while you were honing the only thing you naively wished to be good at. You use that modifier naively because as you pursued the acquisition of skills and subject matter while you were pursuing editing and teaching to support the only thing, you realized a basic rule of Reality, which is that there is always more to be learned than you could possibly imagine. To achieve any results at all from your fondest ambition, you realized you had to start by learning yourself. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But it is the most demanding, time-consuming, mischievous, monstrous task in the universe for any one person. As things stand now, you are on the fringes of you, eager to learn more so that you can, metaphorically of course, paint the undersides of the shelves the lazy painters neglected.

Once, as a younger person, you'd managed a summer job in, of all things, a carpentry shop, your best reference for that position a grade of C in junior high school wood shop. The instructor, a man with a notable lack of some of the fingers he was born with, more or less thrust your report card at you with a sneer. "Lowenkopf," he said, "boys don't get C's in
wood shop. Boys get A's and B's. Boys know how to use miter boxes and band saws and distinguish between rip saws and cross-cut saws." You suppose he was telling you the equivalent of not knowing your own rectum from a hole in the ground. At any rate, you had the job in a carpentry shop with a kindly man who often had you using a machine sander on things, and who taught you something you never quite forgot. "You will sand and varnish every surface in my cabinets and bureaus," he said. "I don't care if the ultimate buyer or user is aware of all the work being done or not. I will know it, and that is what matters."

You go forth, on the margins of things by choice, metaphorically sanding and varnishing all the surfaces that go from you.

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