Wednesday, December 31, 2014

George Burns, the Jewish Mark Twain; Mark Twain, the Gentile George Burns

Events that do not lead to some form of closure beget suspicion.  In this way, you join multitudes, wanting an effect for every cause, a solution to every puzzle, an explanation for what appears to be an undocumented phenomenon.

Where did it begin?  Perhaps as far back as the awareness that if you cried one way, you got fed, if you cried another way, your diapers were changed.  Perhaps there were rumblings of potentials for yet other ways of crying.  Chose the right pitch and intensity to signal your wish to be held, or your frustration at some physical task beyond your then motor abilities.

After years of study and cultural reinforcement, you now associate the term "closure" with story. A story is a series of events, set in motion by an individual who wants something, feels the motivation to wander or explore, to change some status.  Story is ambition, put to dramatic visibility.  Ambition is, among other things, getting fed or having one's diapers changed.

You know of many individuals who lived their entire life span in a state of accelerating accommodation to the awareness of failure to capture the illusive goal resonant within them.  At this moment, thinking about these implications, you have flashes of the memory of your father, being in the same room with his brother-in-law, your uncle George.

Both men were at comfortable ease with each other, yet there was a social and professional difference between the two.  Your father did not, you believe, envy the family status and background from which Uncle George came.  But on the other hand, Uncle George was in professional terms what your father had once longed to be and was reminded of, each time the families gathered.  Uncle George was a dentist.

You recall your father telling you, "That is something I wanted to be."  You recall your mother, on occasion, asking you if you had any interest in dentistry.  You, who had to be reminded to brush his teeth, had mastered the art of turning "Why?" into the sarcastic barb of riposte, shared the inner voices of amazement and horror.  "The acorn,"  your mother said, "might have fallen close to the tree.  Your father had dreams.  But--"  She did not have to conclude the sentence.  You already knew the closure there, the results of two events.  The influenza epidemic of 1917 claimed your paternal grandfather.  A freak accident claimed the left arm, below the elbow, of your father's older brother.  Closure:  such resources as there were went toward law school for your father's older brother.

Event.  Closure.  Consequence.  The holy trinity of story, but also these were the cornerstones of human thinking, expectations, psychology.  Even as you, unversed in words or their meanings, much less the ability to spell and record them, grappled with ways to communicate needs and such desires as you may have had, you were being subject to the radiation of expectations.

The expectations came in large measure from your mother, your father, your older sister who had seven years on you, and a series of maids.  None of these worthies had, you believe, had any agenda of bombarding you.  Each was too caught up in their own process of greeting and coping with Reality.  And you?  You were advancing to the point where your tool kit of cries was producing yet another response, opposition.  You could run through your entire range of cries, sending forth signals to the universe about your needs, yet from somewhere, the developmental equivalent of rejection slips, the decision to let you cry until you stopped.

Yes, mixed message; you know.  But only one of a necessary series of mixed messages before you could feed yourself, in metaphor change your own diapers, and initiate social contacts.  You had to come to some kind of terms with your communications being too much, too self-centered, too lacking in empathy.  Ah, try telling you about empathy with any expectation of success until you were marching on toward your teens.

You might well conclude how the frustrations of unresolved events in Reality drove you to a life in story, where closure was always a required element.  Just as well, you could stop to consider how, over the years, your preferences grew for story in which closure was less emphatic, more open-ended and opaque.  Why did the stories of Anton Chekhov begin to matter?  Or Kathleen Mansfield?  Or. D.H. Lawrence?

You knew where you stood with the likes of Poe and his contemporary, Hawthorne.  You knew what closure was with O. Henry, because he either made it clear or told you where you were.

In your early teens, your mother introduced you to the writings of one from her own generation, Mark Hellinger, whose short fiction appeared with regularity in Liberty, a magazine you sold on the street corners of the Miracle Mile.  Hellinger's work had the bite and conscision of a stand-up comic, with notes of O.Henry and Damon Runyon.  At last, you had things to write about in your notebooks beyond listings of which cars parked on Cochran Street, where you lived for a time.

Soon, you were drawn to the radio programs of comedians, making notes of the punch lines of their jokes, unknowingly reinforcing the cultural if not human need for emphatic closure.  For every man who wandered into a bar in the company of some out-of-the-ordinary companion, there had to be a payoff that produced laughter.

Then came your awareness of George Burns, who opened wide the door you needed most to remove from its hinges.  George Burns was all about timing.  Quick then, connect the dots between Burns, the Jewish Mark Twain, and Mark Twain, the gentile George Burns.

As Wilkie Collins, a favored novelist of your taste, once said, "Make 'em laugh.  Make 'em cry.  Make 'em wait."  We will do anything we can to avoid uncertainty, except recognize it for the driving force of existence.  We are never so certain of what we will do until we are immersed in uncertainty.  When a thing is taken from us, we are saturated with the regret of not appreciating it enough when it was here.

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