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If You See Something

July 28, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jaroslav Thraumb

I was midway through a very different sort of post today when something unexpected happened: I got hit in the face on the subway.

It was an accident, but no less unpleasant for that. On the subway, you expect a certain amount of violence: in the course of a rush-hour commute you’re liable to be jostled, elbowed, crowded, and trod upon. If you are short, the incidence is even higher. But even by those standards this was unusual. Indeed, even by my own day’s standards—which seem to contain more petty indignities than a Benny Hill sketch—this was unusual.

Long story short: as we were both getting up to exit the 1 train, a man hefted his backpack and, in the process, backhanded me. Because his arm was propelled by the weight of his bag, and because I was in the midst of standing up, the blow was really hard. A gasp went up from everyone who had seen. He apologized, twice, but there really wasn’t anything he could do. And because there is nothing worse than refusing an apology for something done without intention, of course I accepted it, and tried to smile and pretend it was nothing.

It has been a while since I was punched in the subway. The last time was much worse. I got on the train with a heavy paper grocery bag in each hand. No sooner had I walked through the doors when a teenager, out of nowhere, punched me in the stomach. It wasn’t that hard, but the shock was enough that I dropped my bags, a plum rolled down the car, and—I would discover later—several eggs broke. His friends cackled with glee. No one did anything.

That wasn’t even the worst part. “Hey, sorry,” said the kid, after I had sat down. Then, “Give me a kiss.”

Now, I’m sitting here with a cold pack to my aching jaw—I have one of those cartoon-drunk ice bags. I think it is going to swell, but hopefully won’t excite too much comment. If I have to, I guess I could make some awful joke about Zsa-Zsa Gabor and New York, and try to be jaunty. But the truth is, I hate having to admit I’m a victim of the city, you know?

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The Best Medicine

July 25, 2014 | by

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Gerard van Honthorst, The Merry Fiddler, 1623

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22

Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!

So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)

I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.

Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.

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Genius of Love

July 24, 2014 | by

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Photo: Rob Boudon

Somewhere in the world there exists a clip of Hugh Hefner on one talk show or another. I can neither remember what the show was nor the exact wording of the exchange, but the following paraphrase has become legendary in my family:

INTERVIEWER: Do you consider yourself a genius?

HEFNER: Genius is a difficult word to define. But by any definition, I am one.

Hef may be a law unto himself, but genius, a word that used to be the sole domain of the upper reaches of the IQ scale, is now thrown around like grass seed. Maybe it’s the effect of language evolution or intelligence inflation—after all, only recently has it became compulsory for one’s child to be intellectually gifted—but it can’t be denied that genius no longer packs the awe-inspiring punch it once did.

Standing in line at the nearest Apple Store yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder: Do the various professional Geniuses there find their appellation hilarious? Do they joke about it all the time? Or are some jokes—in the words of Doris Day in Pillow Talk—too obvious to be funny? One thing I did notice: the people working the Genius Bar all seemed to get along really well. It was like the most collegial workplace I’d ever seen. Maybe because they’re all on the same intellectual level, and engaged in the same enterprise, obscure to much of humanity. Did everyone get along so well on the Manhattan Project?

To me, the workings of a computer are so mysterious, so frightening, that the easy competence with which the Geniuses handle all problems might as well be rocket science. When a very pleasant Genius named Jamie diagnosed the problem that had been sucking up space on my hard drive, opening up some fourteen new gigabytes, I suddenly understood why vulnerable women are always falling for their surgeons and spiritual leaders: in that moment, I was completely in love with him. I found myself wishing that I had put on some mascara, and had not—in deference to the muggy heat—dressed in a free-flowing cotton dress reminiscent of my mother circa summer ’84. (In summer ’84, bear in mind, my mother was pregnant.) I also wished I didn’t have a picture of Susan Sontag in a bear costume on my desktop.

When I signed the electronic screen at the end of my appointment, I attempted to redeem myself by asking what I hoped was an intelligent question: If we all write like five-year-olds on these screens, how is the signature any deterrent to identity theft?

Well, he said, it could all be checked against records—the signature itself is not the point. “Some people will even sign an X,” he explained.

“Like medieval illiterates?” I asked excitedly. And for the first time, the Genius’s face bore the same look of total, bored incomprehension I’d been sporting since I entered the air-conditioned confines of the Apple Store.

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Bittersweet

July 23, 2014 | by

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Richard Ruepp, Plums, 1953-4

One might wonder at the wisdom of undertaking a batch of homemade jam on a ninety-degree day. But I think about it this way: when people actually canned fresh food to get through the winter, it all happened in the summer; hot weather is when you’re supposed to stand over a kettle stirring incessantly without air conditioning. 

Besides, I’ve recently come into a very large—tyrannically bountiful—number of plums, the result of a CSA share lent to me by some generous friends. Their family of four can eat a lot more fresh fruit than one smallish woman living alone. And although there are probably lots of things I could do with them, in my family there is a tradition of plum-jam-making.

Well, sort of. Plum jam was one of my grandfather’s specialties, along with the strips of discounted meat he prepared in his smoker, the icy “gelato” we made in the “electric” ice-cream maker (it was broken, and had to be cranked by hand), and the increasingly dubious loaves that came out of a yard-sale bread machine. While no one can fault the man’s zeal, his technique was, to say the least, idiosyncratic. Read More »

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The Crack-Up

July 22, 2014 | by

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Image via Markscheider/Wikimedia Commons

For longer than I care to admit, I have been unable to scroll down on my computer. This is only the latest in a series of laptop-related inconveniences, but, given the nature of my employment, is something of a problem. If you manage to catch the scrolling bar to the far right of the screen, you can generally navigate okay, but if you relax your vigilance for a moment and move your cursor, that option is closed, and it is necessary to refresh the screen. At least, that’s the only way I know how to do it.

I have lived without video and Flash capacity for some five months now, and it has been a rich, full life, but this scrolling situation seems untenable. I am going to have to go to the Genius Bar, a prospect I dread.

It’s not that I mind the trip, the wait, or even the well-deserved condescension of the Geniuses. At least this time around, there is no varicolored crayon wax mysteriously covering my computer, leading me to mumble some absurd, half-formed lie that implied I either had small children or was a preschool teacher. I’m just terrified that they’re going to tell me the computer can’t be saved, that the scrolling is indicative of a more serious—terminal—illness. (From this you might imagine how conscientiously I deal with actual medical issues.) Read More »

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Beards

July 21, 2014 | by

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An early illustration of Saint Wilgefortis.

If you had asked me two days ago if there existed any Catholic-themed YouTube video stranger than the one where G. K. Chesterton battles a cartoonishly evil Nietzsche, I would have said, “Of course not.” But that was before I saw this group of French feminists in beards paying tribute to Saint Wilgefortis.

Wilgefortis is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “a fabulous female saint known also as UNCUMBER, KUMMERNIS, KOMINA, COMERA, CUMERANA, HULFE, ONTCOMMENE, ONTCOMMER, DIGNEFORTIS, EUTROPIA, REGINFLEDIS, LIVRADE, LIBERATA, etc.”; her attributes are listed as “bearded woman; depicted crucified, often shown with a small fiddler at her feet, and with one shoe off.” Considered a “pious fiction”—that is, a sort of unofficial folktale—she enjoyed popularity throughout Europe. Before the Church removed her commemoration in ’69, July 20 was her feast day.

Though her cult is thought to date to the fourteenth century, concrete details are sparse: generally, Wilgefortis is described as a young, Christian, sometimes Portuguese, occasionally septuplet princess who, rather than marry a pagan against her will, prayed for disfigurement. Her prayers were answered in the form of a beard. Her father, furious with this development, had her crucified. Nowadays, it’s thought that the Wilgefortis story—as well as the related fiddler/shoe legend—evolved from a misinterpretation of the famous Volto Santo crucifixion sculpture in Lucca, Italy. The art historian Charles Cahier wrote, Read More »

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