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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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A Travel Tip

July 18, 2014 | by

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An 1854 French advertisement

Not too long ago, I was asked to contribute a travel tip to an article. I felt like a complete fraud, of course; my vacations, such as they were, consisted of the occasional bus visit to friends in D.C. and the odd weekend with my parents, heavy on historic sites. If I passed along any sort of “tip,” I risked conveying the impression that I was the sort of person who breezed through security with effortlessly straight hair, applied travel-size unguents in her seat, and, when she felt like napping, draped herself in an improbably large cashmere wrap. (This sort of person also had a roll for her jewelry, and had a pricey makeup bag that, in a pinch, could double as a clutch.)

I knew of no special hydrating sprays or extra-good earphones. I almost wrote, “Bring steak sandwiches,” since this is in fact something I like to do when I travel. But certain standards must be maintained. So I recommended wearing a new perfume when one goes on a trip.

I’m not advocating for the purchase of an expensive bottle every time you go to a cousin’s wedding. But for me, the act of dignifying a journey with its own scent can be enough to elevate a humble getaway to vacation status. It’s nice to find something that has a connection to wherever you are, but the actual perfume is secondary. The point is to create a sense memory for the experience that has, for you, no precedent. I’ve worn the same perfume since my twenty-third birthday, when I treated myself to my first bottle of En Passant, but from the moment I get in the cab to the airport, I like to wear something different, unfamiliar.

It should be a scent you can live with, of course, but it need not be one you love. I usually look for something inexpensive, in a travel roller; perfume samples are also perfect for this. I found an eau de toilette called Green Leaf in the LaGuardia terminal before leaving for this trip to Maine, and I have applied it religiously throughout my days here. Months later, I will be able to smell it and remember—or not, as the case may be.

I know it all sounds rather twee. “I wish we could see perfumes as well as smell them. I’m sure they would be very beautiful,” says Anne Shirley, in Anne of the Island, when she is at maximum insipidity, and everyone is in love with her, and everything she does is ethereal and enrapturing and the relatable, human Anne of Green Gables is a distant memory. Even by her standards, however, this is idiotic: a scent is a million times more transporting than an image. Stanislavski could have told her that. Because, really, that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? You’re creating a character: someone who travels, who’s capable of relaxation and maybe even adventure, and who—why not?—has an improbably large cashmere wrap in her bag. Or pretends to.

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