Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Bar as Metaphor

Let's take a moment or two to consider the bar, by which you mean the fabled bar that is being raised or lowered.  That particular bar reminds you of a specific bar you had to deal with every semester of your high school career.  That bar was located in a small, sawdust-covered patch in the northwest corner of the Boys athletic field of Fairfax High School, 7850 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.

The bar was eight feet long, mounted between two upright posts.  A series of holes drilled into these uprights allowed the bar to be positioned at about the level of the waist of the individual using it.  The goal was to begin by vaulting over the bar, using only your hands,  No fair to use your feet for any part of the exercise.  By whatever standard being used, you got a C for vaulting over the bat set at your waist level. 

 To get a B, you had to raise your body to shoulder height, using only your hands and arms, then bring your legs over the bar without touching it.  Then you could let go and land or tumble into a pit of sawdust.  

To get an A on this particular test, you had to raise yourself to the bar, which was now set at your approximate height, bring up your legs, then swing them over the bar without either foot touching the bar.

Any number of boys got As on this test.  You approached the test with the sure knowledge that you would make up for this C with some remarkable performance in the broad jump or the running hop, skip, and jump, or the mile run, for which you'd get a grade of A for running in under six and a half minutes.

To show your scorn for the bar vault, you took to approaching it, when set at the height of your waist, then diving over it without using your hands as leverage, tucking yourself into a ball, then landing in the sawdust with a roll, from which you sprang up with a look of disdain.  

At one point, in your senior year, you actually were able to get over the bar when it was set at shoulder level, but that was an outlier, a freak of a performance.  You were not, you told yourself, the kind of boy who went around getting As in physical education.

Only in later years, after you were out of your schoolroom studies, did the concept of raising or lowering the bar mean anything to you other than that high school physical education confrontation and what one of your gym teachers referred to as your "statement" approach to vaulting the bar.

Somewhere in your twenties then, the concept of raising and lowering a bar took on the meaning for you of raising or lowering standards.  To demonstrate your relative degree of callowness at the time, your attitudes toward standards had not changed all that much since high school.  Couldn't do beyond a C in physical ed, never mind.  Wasn't as though you were a jock.  Wasn't as though you couldn't keep the GPA up with a remarkable performance in another class.  When, and if, you wished.

Somewhere within this time frame, the concept of the bar began an independent life in which you were seeing the height of the bar set beyond reach by the authors you'd begun to admire and with whom, in the dimly lit gymnasium of your ego, you'd begun to see a form of competition beginning to form.

To carry this sense of the inner bar to an exaggerated-yet-accurate sense of your own progress in the world, you recall the morning of your thirty-eighth birthday, when you began to assess your progress.  You reminded yourself that you were already one year older than Mozart was when he died, and nearly the same age as George Gershwin, who also left the party way too early.

Picking those two as bars of stature, versatility, and an incredible body of work made it easy for you to indulge the trope, "And you call yourself a writer."  This worked well so far as the sheer number of written words mattered, but it said little or nothing of quality.

To this day, some of the high school braggadocio of the dive over the waist-high bar is concerned, but most of the competitiveness is gone, replaced by serious respect and admiration for those who are actual students of yours or the likes of a Karen Russell, who is old enough to have been one of your students.

The bar remains and from time to time, when you see something that has the effect of stunning you into a thoughtful silence, you've reached the basic place for characters, moments before story begins.  Most persons and all characters have in common the wish for happiness.  Even if they are happy now, they cannot help thinking about raising the bar to see how, with a bit more effort, greater happiness or a more continuous happiness can be achieved.


What keeps you going now is habit, which may turn out to be what happiness is for you.  You have the habit, however slapdash and still emerging, keeps you working at ways to get over the bar.  With a certain note of irreverence, you are drawn back to your Victorian Literature class and some long, interminable associations with that quintessential Victorian poet, Alfred Tennyson, who took the laureate mantle after Wordsworth.

A bar can also be a sandpit, an oceangoing barrier to negotiate.  Thus:

Crossing the Bar
Sunset and evening star,
  And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
  When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
    Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
    Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
    When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
    The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
    When I have crost the bar.

No comments: