Monday, February 16, 2015

Measure for Measure. No, Wait; That's Been Taken

Because you did not appear to inherit your parents' traits of patience or wait-and-see attitudes, you not only became impatient regarding your height, you flat out did something about keeping a record.  "What," your mother asked you one morning in a tone suggesting confrontation rather than mere curiosity, "are these marks on the wall next to the closet?"

"My progress,"  you said.

"What kind of progress?"

"Growing progress."

"Well, you don't seem to have progressed much, have you?  But if you happen to be worried, the men in your father's side of the family are all over six feet, and I don't think you'd call either of my brothers short."

All true.  But at the point you were making pencil markings to track any potential growth you might have achieved without noticing it, the tendency among your schoolyard associates was to call you Shorty.  Your first driver's license listed your height at five feet, six inches.  In a move of sympathy, your sister tried to ease your concerns with the information that there were more men  under your height than those taller.

In this and so many other ways, your parents were right; while you were still in high school, your nickname underwent the change from shorty to the Yiddish expression meaning long noodle--lange lux. (Pronounced "lang-e lucksh."

At about the same time as you were undergoing your name change, you were busy in your attempts to achieve the status of being well read.  Such was your vanity on that point that your idealized vision of yourself was to have the judgment of being well read as apparent as, well, there is no gainsaying it, lange lux.

This time around, it was not so much your parents who got you past this incipient Narcism as it was your first semester after high school  You were better able to cope with this than you were about your height.  Since the day you stood deep in the bowels of the Lawrence Clark Powell Library at UCLA, looking about you, and deciding you would never be as well-read as you would like, things have gone a great deal easier for you. For one of those "things," admitting this kind of defeat was your way of waving good bye to Narcism; it no longer mattered if people were impressed with the quantity of your reading or lack thereof.

Another "thing" was the awareness that you did not have to read a thing you did not like, provided you took the time to articulate to yourself why you were bailing on a particular title. But most significant was the awareness that books gave you a more accurate metric by which to measure the most difficult to define of all growth plateaus, the one called "How Things Are Going."

When the late, lamented Irwin Blacker, founder of the graduate-level program at which you taught for thirty-four years at USC took you on, he said or asked, asked or said, "You will of course want to use E.M.Forester's Aspects of the Novel as your text"  Or perhaps ?  And you said, "Of course."  Difficult to get the exact total of novels you'd written at that point.  Not difficult to say you'd never heard of Aspects of the Novel.  By the end of the day, you had heard of it.  And as you began to read it, you wished you'd long since heard of it.

There is no telling how many times you've consulted Aspects of the Novel or, indeed, had to replace your present copy because you'd loaned it to a student without noting which student, a small matter overall because even wealthy students do not have enough money for books.  You can--and do--say how significant a voice Aspects continues to be as you forge your own novel-writing bill of particulars.  

You will doubtless read it again, discovering some "aspect" you'd missed all these years, because for you, the conversion from knowledge to wisdom comes from being the late bloomer, the one who sees much--but by no means all--of his prior naivete fall away in a blast of insight.

Your old pal and University chum, Larry Swindell, for whom you reviewed books when he was at the Inquirer in Philadelphia, and the Star-Telegram in Ft. Worth-Dallas, telephoned to ask if he might send you the new Maxwell collection.  You did not know at the time what the "new Maxwell collection" was, much less who Maxwell was. Now you know it to have been Billie Dyer; you also know Maxwell to have been the fiction editor for The New Yorker, and author of a stunning array of novels, short stories, essays, and autobiography.  You were shrewd enough to have told SwindellBeen , "Thank you for thinking of me with this," for it was well worth the thanks to gain sudden introduction to a man who had filtered the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Mavis Gallant, John Cheever, Frank O'Hara, John O'Hara, Shirley Hazard, and John Updike into the pages of his journal and into the subsequent pages of most lasting anthologies.

These two books stand out as the beginning of the revelation; the more you reread significant works over the years, the more you understand them and their place in the world and your years.  You can measure that.


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