Monday, December 17, 2012


There are times when a thing--any thing--is complete unto itself, has no other meanings or implications.  A good example of this condition is the quote from Sigmund Freud, "Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar."

The first thing to question in this case is, Did Freud actually say this?  Adjunct questions emerge.  Is the saying Apocryphal?  Was it invented to make a humorous side note?  If Freud did make the statement, what was his frame of mind at the time of doing so?

Whether Freud ever said such a thing or not, it is a provocative statement.  Isn't it?

There are also times when a thing resonates well outside its own physical borders, becoming a metaphor, or a unit in another great form of allegory, the synecdoche.  Thus, for example, the bald eagle becomes America, a man of about your height and build, wearing striped pants (which you would never wear) and a stove pipe hat becomes the incarnation of America.

Some things are mere details, in large part forgettable or skimmed over with ease.  An example here is the descriptive clause, "a short man with a mustache." So what?  Even when we add the adjective pencil-thin to modify the mustache, the result is the same.  So what?  Who cares?  But look at what a detail can do to make the description memorable:  "a short man with a Hitler mustache."

Another nice use of a simple thing, the kind of thing a woman is more likely to notice than a man, is seen in Leo Tolstoy's highly nuanced novel, Anna Karenina, wherein the protagonist is presented as a younger woman, not at all confident about her attractiveness, fussing with self-doubt as she dresses to attend a ball.  Her mother gives her a simple cloth band to wear in her hair, telling her the band will remind her how attractive she is.  Tolstoy knew a few things about women.  He knew a few things about observation.  He knew a few things about psychology.  Anna wears the band to the ball, where she "allows" it to remind her how attractive she is.  Not long after, Anna receives a complement that makes her blush.  What power did that hair band have?

What power do things have?

To a considerable extent, you've positioned yourself so that you are surrounded with pictures and objects, each of which radiates with the aura of at least one past event or association, and if it does not, it is some object, a flower, plant, or photograph, brought in because of the pleasing, resonant sense of aesthetic it causes to vibrate within you.  Even those few things that do not resonate are nevertheless conveyors of some useful function you appreciate.

Another person seeing these items, these things, could miss the resonance they hold for you.  The mug, for instance, from Usingers, a purveyor in Milwaukee, intended to hold beer, was given you by a dear and favored cousin.  The mug has not, in you possession, been used for beer, rather for hot chocolate or, in its current incarnation, to hold fountain pens.  

A Native American basket, given you by a woman at the Acoma Pueblo, filled with potsherds, shards of broken pottery you were guided to by a man you met in a trading post near the Second Mesa, became one of those "Don't go down this path," conversations.  "If you go here, you will find only things potters have discarded for various reasons I do not wish to talk about, but I can tell you these shards are not what they seem to you."

He would tell you no more.  The shards all have designs, all of them seeming to you quite beautiful and wonderful, which truly makes part of the point you are after here.

In the kitchen is an ocher-colored dish with a flowery border, purchased by your late wife for ten cents at a sidewalk sale on Salinas Street.  You have no idea how many breakfasts you've eaten from that dish nor can you hope to imagine what dishes it served before it came into your possession.  The dish is shelved with a bowl of more or less the same color, with an entirely different provenance, the late San Francisco Chowder House, where it once served chowder and was secured for you by a former lady friend who "bought" it from a busboy with a super-thick doobie.

Which of your things will begin a new life cycle for ten cents at a street sale after they are no longer with you?  Your father's pocket watch?  A pocket watch from a student?  A framed 3 x 4 photograph of a blue-tick coon hound named Edward?

Things that do not resonate for you have no business in your living quarters.  Things that resonate have the quality of the Roman household deities, the lares and penates, or the farm fetishes of the Zuni; they are embodiments not of gods but of events and meanings that influence your story, your moods, your attitudes of respect and veneration as you go forth into the day.  To be clear, you do on many occasions go forth with respect and veneration for the associations and experiences you have had during your time on this planet.

As the time approaches, you may think to give some of these things to specific individuals, thinking they may radiate some of the magic into the lives of these persons that they radiated into yours.  In this act, you will have wished the recipients the magical equivalent of being well of being invulnerable to disappointment or of the need for some solace for some disappointment or loss.  Magic such as the magic you describe cannot be bequeathed, only the intent of the magic.  Thus the love and friendship and devotion you give and receive are the true coins of story and the most tangible bequests one living person can give another.

These are times where publishers are giving free downloads of novels, where Amazon is selling your $19.95 book for $13.60, and where it may be downloaded on a Kindle or Nook for a tad over seven dollars.  Money is not the reliable index it would like to be.  Things may work well for you but not another or the situation may obtain in the reverse.

Intent radiates in the same way mischief radiates from the Donald Duck fork in your kitchen drawer.  Your intent radiates mischief but it also radiates all the fuss and complaint about the things that influenced Donald Duck.  Intent radiates outward the way story radiates, spiraling like light from distant stars.  You love with a special fierceness the stories you receive from those who have been gone from this planet for centuries and find yourself writing stories to them as a way of thanking them.  Payback.


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