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Much of the exasperation my teacher-friends express confuses me. “How can an essay have so many spelling errors in the spellcheck era?” grumbles one. “If I see one more its/it’s mistake I’m going to scream” tweets another. I sense real ire from these people, or at least intense distaste. The typos and misused words offend them. And this phenomenon isn’t relegated to teachers; I often find this sort of disdain on message boards, comment sections, or any part of the internet where language goes unchecked and unedited.
I don’t understand these reactions at all. First, what is the source of this irritation? Do these typos or errors make it more difficult to read, understand, or evaluate writing, either professionally or personally? I always know if “there” is supposed to be a possessive or a contraction—it never tricks me! Then again I’m a pretty good reader; I can look at words and suddenly I’ve read them, without saying them or anything. But I also assume that these grammar sticklers are good readers too.
Perhaps a contempt for the authors’ ignorance or carelessness? This seems more likely, but wouldn’t this acknowledgement of superiority bring a kind of joy? If you are using your education to enforce class boundaries though grammar, then appreciate the chance to do so! That Ivy League school tuaght you to catch errors like these!
More importantly, though: do most people not appreciate the beauty of the word-error? It lets us take a tiny break from the onslaught of discourse and appreciate the form of language! Each mistake is a tiny narrative: what caused the mistake: greasy fingers, too-loud Ke$ha, a phonetic misunderstanding? These errors bring the body, with all its flaws, back to language. I can’t be sure, but I’m pretty sure that French (post)structuralist Roland Barthes would appreciate a good typo. For example:
The pleasure of the text: like Bacon’s simulator, it can say: never apologize, never explain. It never denies anything: “I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation.”
So begins his brilliant and confounding essay “The Pleasure of the Text,” which describes my attitude towards textual errors at every turn. Later he describes the “text of bliss,” which seems to refer to typos and their kin: “the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.” To borrow another Barthes phrase, this “rustle of language” caused by unintentional mistakes slows us down a step, and forces us to consider, and even enjoy, the human element that lies behind the words we read. Let me outline a few of the different kinds of language errors and elaborate their various pleasures.
This is the simplest textual mistake you can make. It presumably reveals no misunderstanding or ignorance on the part of the author. A simple slip of the finger creates an error in the text, but rarely clouds intelligibility whatsoever. But what flavor they can add to even the most mundane chats or texts! I long for the days before standardized spelling. “Teh” is a favorite of mine because it elicits such a strange, stupefying sound; it is the onomatopoeia for the typo. “Htat” and “htis” are also pleasant on the eye and ear, and doublle (or especially triple) lettters force the gaze to linger and appreciate the construction of words. Simple typos like this rarely bring moments of sublimity, but they do act as charming stumbling blocks that remind you that you are reading human words.
It seems to me that most people’s spoken vocabulary outnumbers their written vocabulary. The reverse can be true; for most of my school years I was afraid to mention faux pas or alma mater in conversation. But the (mis)transcription of speech to writing can serve as a joyful reminder of the shiftiness of language.
Some of these errors reflect an improper pronunciation into improper spelling: supposebly and expecially are favorites of mine. Does a student’s handwritten note that claims to have “expecially enjoyed” your class not drip with pathos? I could ask for nothing more evocative of the combination of empathy and despair that teaching rhetoric evokes.
Other examples consist of the author using a similar-sounding word (sometimes, but not always, a homonym) instead of the proper word. A remarkable number of these slips are Freudian: venerated becomes venereal; penal becomes penile. Once again, the body reasserts itself: how feudally we try to avoid our baseness with abstract nouns and latinate suffixes! Often these mistakes are mysteries to me; does the student who writes of “ejaculating refugees” actually say “evacuate” that way, or was it simply a typo? Or some dark, poetic metaphor?
The misused word/grammar error
These mistakes seem to inspire the most contempt in readers. So many OKCupid profiles forbid anyone “who doesn’t know the difference between its and it’s” from messaging. I can only assume that these banal criteria serve as one easily enforced method of determining the class and education level of a potential mate. I wonder how effectively most readers judge someone “sounding smart” through pronoun choice, though; a recent OKC study showed that men are more likely to receive responses if they use the word “whom,” whether they use it correctly or not. This news isn’t particularly depressing for me, but it shows what using proper pronouns/contractions/whatever is good for: a display of class/education/power that makes one more attractive (to a certain kind of person). I’m all for empowerment, and that is how I teach grammar to my students: a familiarity with non-communicative grammatical nuance has no value in itself, but it could be essential for a job or OKCupid message, so you probably want to learn it.
HOWEVER, I see the misuse of its/it’s and there/their/they’re as an act of rebellion, and I regularly include these tiny revolts into my everyday discourse. The increased usage of written (typed) communication by the uneducated, the young, and the disenfranchised is leading to a quick-moving destandardization of English (I’ll get into txtspk some other day). Do you really want to be a part of the old guard, enforcing prejudice against those who don’t know or don’t care about your rules of grammar or typography? Do you value a pristine text more than the people who create it? Or, to put it another way, there are to kinds of people in the world: those that see language as a test, and those who see language as a game. Ones alot more fun.
Happy New Year! Here’s your challenge. You—yes, you—right here, right now, have a chance, nothing more, a slim reed of a chance, at a year that counts.
So I’d be willing to bet you’ve been cutting back on the sugar and vowing to get to Inbox Zero. 2014 is the year you will finally floss! And make junior vice president assistant director!
Before you get carried away by your Evernote file of Paleo recipes and your elaborate new system of Outlook sub-folders — you have a bigger opportunity here. Being the person you were put here to become.
I believe, first, in a humble, simple truth: that each and every one of us is here to live a life that matters. And we must do so by making each and every moment of each and every day of each and every year that we are privileged to live count.
And while dental hygiene is important, I’d like to postulate four resolutions that will help you create something that matters even more: a year that counts.
Don’t give up on your dreams. If you want your year to count, don’t start with your goals. Don’t start with your plans. Don’t start with your objectives. Start with your dreams. The bigger, the more laughable, the more impossible—the better. We feel as if our lives count when—and only when—we brush against our dreams, with the fingertips of our days. When we feel them; when we know them; when we become them. Our dreams do more than “inspire” us—that insipid word so loved by TED talkers and motivational speakers. Our dreams infuse us. They sing to us of who we may become. They elevate us. For our days to count, we must feel—sometimes painfully, sometimes joyously, never easily—that our better selves are roaring, exploding, thundering to life. And our dreams are the songs that awaken them.
Never, ever give up on your dreams. Not when it’s difficult; and especially not when it’s sensible. Nothing is more senseless than the sensible choice to live a meaningless life.
Don’t be afraid to suffer. There are two reasons for human action, and economists, with their superficial talk of “incentives,” don’t understand either. Fear and love. What are you afraid of? Rejection, poverty, disgrace? Whatever you call it, here is what it is: suffering. But you must never be afraid to suffer. It’s not that suffering makes you “stronger”—for life isn’t merely an exercise in empty stoicism; and, indeed, suffering for it’s own sake is futile. Nor merely must you suffer for the “sake” of what you want—money, power, sex, fame. No: it’s that suffering is so intimately connected with love — with what makes life worth living. Your fears are not imaginary: they will, it is likely, come true. Yes, you will get dumped, axed, insulted. You will fail, stumble, falter. You will hurt, ache, yearn, long, want, despair. But that is precisely the fire in which all the elements of greatness—empathy, grace, tolerance, forgiveness, perseverance—are forged.
It is no accident that the word passion arose from the Latin word for suffering. When we treat suffering as merely pain to be escaped, we sacrifice passion in the process. In a world where so many want to feel passionate about their lives and their work, very few seem willing to suffer. But you can’t have one without the other.
Suffering is the fire that melts the glass of the person you must leave behind. Suffering signals the price of growth; and we can never learn the worth of growth if we are afraid to suffer.
Seek the mystery inside the truth, not the truth inside the mystery. We’re taught to be obedient rationalists—super-nerd-brains running computer programs that optimize the lives other people tell us we should want—instead of, you know, human spirits capable of creating the lives we could live. What gets measured, goes the old adage, gets managed. So analyze, test, explain, iterate! But the universe is not just greater than what we can explain—it is infinitely richer. Can you put love in a spreadsheet? Can you iterate towards friendship? Can you explain happiness?
The truth alone isn’t enough if you want your days to counts. The mystery in the truth is where life begins to count. Why does this person love me? Did I really create that? What inspired me to break the rules and say that? What the hell just happened?!
Uncovering truths alone can help us make sensible choices—but sensible choices don’t propel to lives that matter. That leap is only taken in the instant you venture beyond certainty, beyond reason, beyond logic. And you must make that leap beyond truth every day, if you wish your days to count.
Let you happen. We, we are told, must “make it happen”; if we wish our lives to be precisely so. But that is the social philosophy of a child. Is it true that we must press the lever, if we wish to obtain the rewards we seek? Sure. If we’re lab rats—or smiling, thoughtless automatons. If, instead, we are here to live lives that matter, resonant with purpose, luminous with celebration, here is what is truer: we must let ourselves be, in every instant, who we were meant to become. We must be more than lever-pressers. We must escape our cages. We must let “it” happen. What is “it”? All that which imbues our actions with meaning; without which life is little more than an empty, meaningless performance—good and bad. Love. Yearning. Loss. Grief. Heartbreak. Tragedy. Despair. Triumph. Will. All that and more—we must let happen, if we are to grow. What stands in their way, most often? The world? No. It’s us, ourselves—it is the worst in us, that will not budge, that will not yield, that limits us. That leaves us feeling thwarted; stifled; cheated—because, in truth, we are. We are cheating ourselves of meaning when we do not let life happen—and act as we are merely conditioned to, by the cheap desires programmed into us instead: Achieve! Earn! Spend! Die!
So let you happen—all of you. Free yourself. Want a year that counts? Maybe you have to end a bad relationship so that you can have your heart shattered into a million tiny aching pieces…so it can beat with a fiercer rhythm. Maybe you have to tell your NeanderBoss “no” instead of smiling and nodding like a spineless flunky. Maybe you have to apologize to someone, and look your shortcomings straight in the eye. Or maybe you have to start that company, marry that person, and put down roots — even when the ground beneath you feels like shifting sand. Or maybe you have to strike out and get lost in the unknown to find the opportunity on the other side. Whatever it is, let it happen.
Rumi once said: “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the sky”. What did he mean? Something like this: we truly know what it is to love only when we humble ourselves to what counts. Our days count—and only count—when we may love more than we could before. Think about it: if you loved your partner, job, house, city, country, family, friends, ideas…less and less every day, how would you feel about your life? Like it was empty, futile, senseless: like it hadn’t…counted.
Which instants count? They’re not the ones that fill up our wallets. They’re not the ones where we have a pretty girl (or boy) on our arms. They’re not the ones where we buy, have, possess, barter, win, conquer. They’re the ones in which humble ourselves to the meaninglessness of all that. That’s when we kneel. And come face to face with the sky.
So stop. Stop scurrying. Stop chasing. Stop worrying, envying, hoarding, scheming.
You’re free. (You always were.) And you have a choice–and a chance. At making it all count. Not just this year. But every instant. Every moment. It. Your life. You.
Here’s a great secret: you don’t only live once. You live an uncountable multitude of times; a lifetime in every day. And that’s more than enough for anyone.
The question isn’t if you’re going to die. It’s whether you’re going to live.
The “conversation about race” that public figures periodically claim to desire, the one that is always either about to happen or is being prevented from happening, has been going on, at full volume, at least since the day in 1619 when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown. It has proceeded through every known form of discourse — passionate speeches, awkward silences, angry rants, sheepish whispers, jokes, insults, stories and songs — and just as often through double-talk, indirection and not-so-secret codes.
What are we really talking about, though? The habit of referring to it as “race” reflects a tendency toward euphemism and abstraction. Race is a biologically dubious concept and a notoriously slippery social reality, a matter of group identity and personal feelings, mutual misunderstandings and the dialectic of giving and taking offense. If that is what we are talking about, then we are not talking about the historical facts that continue to weigh heavily on present circumstances, which is to say about slavery, segregation and white supremacy.
But of course we are still talking about all that, with what seems like renewed concentration and vigor. Nor, in a year that is the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address and the semicentennial of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, are we simply looking back at bygone tragedies from the standpoint of a tranquil present. The two big racially themed movies of the year, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” are notable for the urgency and intensity with which they unpack stories of the past, as if delivering their news of brutal bondage and stubborn discrimination for the first time.
And one of the strange effects of this country’s anxious, confused, hopeful and delusional relationship to its history of racism is that such narratives often do feel like news, or like efforts to overcome willful amnesia. The astonishing experiences of Solomon Northup, Mr. McQueen’s protagonist, a free man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South in 1841, are not being presented to the American public for the first time. Northup’s memoir was an antebellum best seller, nearly as widely circulated in abolitionist circles as “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A screen adaptation, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Avery Brooks in the title role (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Mr. McQueen’s version), was broadcast on PBS in 1984.
Some of the film’s representations of cruelty — whippings, hangings, the sexual abuse of a young female slave named Patsey by her sadistic master — will also stir the memories of those Americans (like me) for whom “Roots” was a formative cultural experience. In 1977, when the mini-series, based on Alex Haley’s book, was first broadcast, it was heralded not only for its authenticity and comprehensiveness, but also for its newness. This was the first time such a story had been told in such breadth and detail, and with so much assembled talent. It continued, two years later, with “Roots: The Next Generations,” which was in some ways more groundbreaking for bringing attention to the often neglected decades of struggle and frustration that fell between the end of the Civil War and the birth of the modern civil rights movements.
Such stories, of course, do not stay told. The moral, economic and human realities of slavery — to keep the narrative there for a moment — have a way of getting buried and swept aside. For a long time this was because, at the movies as in the political and scholarly mainstream, slavery was something of a dead letter, an inconvenient detail in a narrative of national triumph, a sin that had been expiated in the blood of Northern and Southern whites.
D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” may look now like a work of reactionary racism, but it is very much an artifact of the Progressive Era, embraced by President Woodrow Wilson and consistent with what were then understood to be liberal ideas about destiny and character of the American republic. In Griffith’s film (adapted from “The Clansman,” a best-selling novel by Thomas Dixon), the great crime of slavery had been its divisive and corrupting effect on whites. After Reconstruction, the nation was re-founded on the twin pillars of abolition and white supremacy.
Which is also to say on the basis of terror and disenfranchisement. But that side of the story was pushed to the margins, as was the harshness of slavery itself, which was obscured by a fog of sentimentality about the heritage and culture of the Old South. This was the iconography of “Gone With the Wind,” and while the pageantry of that blockbuster seems dated (to say nothing of its sexual politics), the old times it evokes are not forgotten, as Paula Deen might tell you.
The appeal of “Roots” lay partly in its status as a long-delayed, always-marginalized counternarrative, an answer to the mythology and romance that had shrouded popular representations of the American past. Much doubt has been cast on the accuracy of Haley’s book (which was marketed as a novel based on family sources), but the corrective power of the mini-series lay in its ability to reimagine the generation-by-generation sweep of American history from a perspective that had not before been synthesized on screens or public airwaves.
In retrospect, “Roots” — which arrived on television a dozen years after the legislative high-water mark of the civil rights movement, in the more immediate wake of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and the first “Rocky” movie — may have succeeded so widely with white and black audiences because it simultaneously opened and closed the book on America’s racial history. There were a lot more American families like the one in the mini-series, but also with their own distinctive sagas of captivity, freedom, migration and resilience.
Those intimate stories had never been shared in such a wide and public fashion and the reception of “Roots” had a catalyzing effect on the imagination of many black writers. Until then, slavery had been something of a taboo in African-American literature, whose thematic center of gravity was in the urban North and whose theme was the black experience of modernity. But “Roots,” clumsy and corny as parts of it look now, helped beget radical and ambitious novels like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” and Edward P. Jones’s “Known World.” They, along with artists like Kara Walker, took slavery as an imaginative challenge and an artistic opportunity.
But there was also a sense, after “Roots” and after “Beloved” claimed its place in the canon, that it had all been said. The white audience, moved by duty, curiosity and sincere empathy, could now move on. The horrors of the past, especially when encountered on television, cast a soothing and forgiving light on the present, where some of us could be comforted, absolved, affirmed in our virtue through the simple fact of watching.
But after such forgiveness, what knowledge? Post-“Roots,” a Hollywood consensus took shape that replaced the old magnolia-scented mythology with a new one, almost as focused on the moral condition of white people, but with a different political inflection. The existence of racism is acknowledged, and its poisonous effects are noted. But it is also localized, in time and geography, in such a way as to avoid implicating the present-day white audience. The racists are clearly marked as villains — uncouth, ugly, ignorant in ways that no one watching would identify with — and they are opposed by a coalition of brave whites and noble, stoical blacks. At the end, the coach and his players, the preacher and his flock, the maid and her enlightened employer shame the bigots and vindicate the audience.
There are variations on this theme, of course, but it is remarkably durable. It links, for example, “The Help,” Tate Taylor’s mild and decorous look at master-servant relations in Mississippi in the early 1960s (based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel), with “Django Unchained,”Quentin Tarantino’s violent and profane (if no less fantastical) examination of the same subject in the same state a little more than a century before. In both cases, a white character (Emma Stone’s writer; Christoph Waltz’s itinerant dentist) helps a black protégé acquire the ability to humiliate the oppressors. The weapon might be a book, a pie or a hail of gunfire, but the effect is the same. Justice is served and everyone cheers.
Some of us, perhaps including the white directors, are cheering for ourselves. Look how bad it used to be. Thank goodness — our own goodness — that it isn’t anymore. And of course it is never just the way it used to be. The abolition of slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow really happened, against considerable odds and thanks to blacks and whites who took risks that later generations can only regard with awe and patriotic pride. The challenge is how to complete a particular story and leave the audience with the understanding that the narrative is not finished, that the past, to modify everyone’s favorite Faulkner quote, is not quite past.
Recent work by academic historians has emphasized the extent to which the exploitation and oppression of African-Americans — the denial of their freedom as workers and their rights as citizens — is embedded in the national DNA. Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams” shows how the Cotton Kingdom of the 19th-century Deep South, far from being a backward outpost of feudalism, was a dynamic engine of capitalist expansion built on enslaved labor. “Fear Itself,” Ira Katznelson’s revisionist study of the New Deal, shows how the great edifice of American social democracy, passed with the support of Southern Democrats, rested on and upheld the color line. And while neither white supremacy nor slavery has legal standing or legitimate defenders in America today, it would be hard to argue that their legacy has been expunged, or to confine their scope to the benighted actions of a few individuals.
Racism is part of the deep structure of American life, which is to say a persistently uncomfortable and also a persistently interesting subject, a spur to artistic creation as well as historical research. “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” may not be telling entirely new stories, but they are trying to tell them in new ways. Mr. McQueen infuses what looks like a conventional costume drama with the unflinching rigor that has characterized his previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame.” Mr. Daniels, the director of “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” blends melodrama, naturalism and brazen theatricality into a pageant that knowingly flirts with self-parody even as it packs a devastating emotional punch.
Some of that impact comes at the end of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which pointedly asks the audience to consider what has and has not changed. It is not much of a spoiler to say that Barack Obama is elected president, an event that is especially sweet and piquant for the title character, a black man who worked in the White House through the administrations of every president from Eisenhower to Reagan.
And it is certainly not a spoiler to note that in real life, Mr. Obama’s election and re-election have not ushered in an era of colorblind consensus. On the contrary, the fervor of the opposition to the president, and its concentration in the states of the former Confederacy, have at least something to do with the color of his skin. But Mr. Obama’s victories, and the resistance to them, have opened a new and complicated chapter in a continuing story, which means also a new interest in how the past looks from this particular present.
This chapter is being portrayed on screen by filmmakers like Mr. Daniels and Mr. McQueen, and written in journalism, fiction and memoirs by a rising generation of African-American writers that includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward. Ms. Ward’s new book, “Men We Reaped,” is a Southern coming-of-age story that evokes a long tradition of black autobiography going back to slave narratives and (in its title) the words of Harriet Tubman and an old chain-gang work song. Ms. Ward’s stories of black men in tragic circumstances seem both ancient and contemporary, echoing back to the lives of those less lucky than Solomon Northup and connecting with the fates of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant III, whose 2009 killing by transit police in Oakland is the subject of the recent film “Fruitvale Station.”
What links these episodes is the troubling reality that now — even now, we might say, with a black president and a culture more accepting of its own diversity than ever before — the full citizenship, which is to say the full acknowledged humanity, of African-Americans remains in question. The only way to answer that question is to keep talking, and to listen harder.
in this multimedia-driven age, schools should place the same emphasis on visual literacy as they do written. we need to be able to parse through the latest breaking news report or the latest breaking bad episode to the point where we can both grasp what’s being said (audibly & visually) and appreciate/understand what exactly the directors/actors/reporters are doing to convey their messages.
director martin scorsese provides a solid argument for this stance in his new essay “the persisting vision: reading the language of cinema”. in it, scorsese also touches on what he loves about movies and scatters in some great bits of film history. check it out below (via ny review of books) and respond to it in the comments:
In the film The Magic Box, which was made in England in 1950, the great English actor Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene—one of the people who invented movies. The Magic Box was packed with guest stars. It was made for an event called the Festival of Britain. You had about fifty or sixty of the biggest actors in England at the time, all doing for the most part little cameos, including the man who played the policeman—that was Sir Laurence Olivier.
I saw this picture for the first time with my father. I was eight years old. I’ve never really gotten over the impact that it had. I believe this is what ignited in me the wonder of cinema, and the obsession—with watching movies, making them, inventing them.
Friese-Greene gives everything of himself to the movies, and he dies a pauper. If you know the full story of his life and its end, the line in the film about the invention of the movies—“You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene”—of course is ironic, but in some ways it’s also true because he’s followed his obsession all the way. So it’s both disturbing and inspiring. I was very young. I didn’t put this into words at the time, but I sensed these things and I saw them up there on the screen.
My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.
And I realize now that the warmth of that connection with my family and with the images on the screen gave me something very precious. We were experiencing something fundamental together. We were living through the emotional truths on the screen, often in coded form, which these films from the 1940s and 1950s sometimes expressed in small things: gestures, glances, reactions between the characters, light, shadow. These were things that we normally couldn’t discuss or wouldn’t discuss or even acknowledge in our lives.
Frank Capra said, “Film is a disease.” I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother. You’d go through the doors, up the thick carpet, past the popcorn stand that had that wonderful smell—then to the ticket taker, and then in some of the old theaters there would be another set of doors with little windows and you’d get a glimpse of something magical happening up there on the screen, something special. And as we entered, for me it was like entering a sacred space, a kind of sanctuary where the living world around me seemed to be recreated and played out.
What was it about cinema? What was so special about it? I think I’ve discovered some of my own answers to that question a little bit at a time over the years.
written by the director/actor/writer for nytimes:
WHEN The New York Times called, inquiring if I might pen a few words “from the horse’s mouth” about hypochondria, I confess I was taken aback. What light could I possibly shed on this type of crackpot behavior since, contrary to popular belief, I am not a hypochondriac but a totally different genus of crackpot?
What I am is an alarmist, which is in the same ballpark as the hypochondriac or, should I say, the same emergency room. Still there is a fundamental difference. I don’t experience imaginary maladies — my maladies are real.
What distinguishes my hysteria is that at the appearance of the mildest symptom, let’s say chapped lips, I instantly leap to the conclusion that the chapped lips indicate a brain tumor. Or maybe lung cancer. In one instance I thought it was Mad Cow.
The point is, I am always certain I’ve come down with something life threatening. It matters little that few people are ever found dead of chapped lips. Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor’s office in need of reassurance that my latest allergy will not require a heart transplant, or that I have misdiagnosed my hives and it’s not possible for a human being to contract elm blight.
Unfortunately, my wife bears the brunt of these pathological dramas. Like the time I awoke at 3 a.m. with a spot on my neck that to me clearly had the earmarks of a melanoma. That it turned out to be a hickey was confirmed only later at the hospital after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Sitting at an ungodly hour in the emergency room where my wife tried to talk me down, I was making my way through the five stages of grief and was up to either “denial” or “bargaining” when a young resident fixed me with a rather supercilious eye and said sarcastically, “Your hickey is benign.”
But why should I live in such constant terror? I take great care of myself. I have a personal trainer who has me up to 50 push-ups a month, and combined with my knee bends and situps, I can now press the 100-pound barbell over my head with only minimal tearing of my stomach wall. I never smoke and I watch what I eat, carefully avoiding any foods that give pleasure. (Basically, I adhere to the Mediterranean diet of olive oil, nuts, figs and goat cheese, and except for the occasional impulse to become a rug salesman, it works.) In addition to yearly physicals I get all available vaccines and inoculations, making me immune to everything from Whipple’s disease to the Andromeda strain.
As far as vitamins go, if I take a few with each meal, over time I can usually get in quite a lot before the latest study confirms they’re worthless. Regarding medications, I’m flexible but prudent because while it’s true antibiotics kill bad bacteria, I’m always afraid they’ll kill my good bacteria, not to mention my pheromones, and then I won’t give off any sexual vibes in a crowded elevator.
It’s also true that when I leave the house to go for a stroll in Central Park or to Starbucks for a latte I might just pick up a quick cardiogram or CT scan prophylactically. My wife calls this nonsense and says that in the end it’s all genetic. My parents both lived to ripe old ages but absolutely refused to pass their genes to me as they believed an inheritance often spoils the child.
Even when the results of my yearly checkup show perfect health, how can I relax knowing that the minute I leave the doctor’s office something may start growing in me and, by the time a full year rolls around, my chest X-ray will look like a Jackson Pollock? Incidentally, this relentless preoccupation with health has made me quite the amateur medical expert. Not that I don’t make an occasional mistake — but what doctor doesn’t? For example, I once convinced a woman who experienced a mild ringing in her ears that she had the flesh-eating bacteria, and another time I pronounced a man dead who had simply dozed off in a chair.
But what’s this obsession with personal vulnerability? When I panic over symptoms that require no more than an aspirin or a little calamine lotion, what is it I’m really frightened of? My best guess is dying. I have always had an animal fear of death, a fate I rank second only to having to sit through a rock concert. My wife tries to be consoling about mortality and assures me that death is a natural part of life, and that we all die sooner or later. Oddly this news, whispered into my ear at 3 a.m., causes me to leap screaming from the bed, snap on every light in the house and play my recording of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” at top volume till the sun comes up.
I sometimes imagine that death might be more tolerable if I passed away in my sleep, although the reality is, no form of dying is acceptable to me with the possible exception of being kicked to death by a pair of scantily clad cocktail waitresses.
Perhaps if I were a religious person, which I am not, although I sometimes do have the intimation that we all may be part of something larger — like a Ponzi scheme. A great Spanish philosopher wrote that all humans long for “the eternal persistence of consciousness.” Not an easy state to maintain, especially when you’re dining with people who keep talking about their children.
And yet, there are worse things than death. Many of them playing at a theater near you. For instance, I would not like to survive a stroke and for the rest of my life talk out of the side of my mouth like a racetrack tout. I would also not like to go into a coma, to lie in a hospital bed where I’m not dead but can’t even blink my eyes and signal the nurse to switch the channel from Fox News. And incidentally, who’s to say the nurse isn’t one of those angel of death crazies who hates to see people suffer and fills my intravenous glucose bag with Exxon regular.
Worse than death, too, is to be on life support listening to my loved ones in a heated debate over whether to terminate me and hear my wife say, “I think we can pull the plug, it’s been 15 minutes and we’ll be late for our dinner reservation.”
What worries me most is winding up a vegetable — any vegetable, and that includes corn, which under happier circumstances I rather like. And yet is it really so great to live forever? Sometimes in the news I see features about certain tall people who reside in snow-capped regions where a whole village population lives to 140 or so. Of course all they ever eat is yogurt, and when they finally do die they are not embalmed but pasteurized. And don’t forget these healthy people walk everyplace because try getting a cab in the Himalayas. I mean do I really want to pass my days in some remote place where the main entertainment is seeing which guy in town can lift the ox highest with his bare hands?
Summing up, there are two distinct groups, hypochondriacs and alarmists. Both suffer in their own ways, and traits of one group may overlap the other, but whether you’re a hypochondriac or an alarmist, at this point in time, either is probably better than being a Republican.
in better-late-than-never news (sorry), here are 12 posts that you can’t go into 2013 without reading (click on the titles to access the full post):
next up…life rewind 2012: videos…christmas eve