The Funeral Rule

In my ongoing effort to become a walking mound of quirks and eccentricities, a few years ago I decided that I would no longer attend weddings or funerals, not even my own.  The former, given said quirks and eccentricities, never struck me as likely; marriageable people for some reason insist on abiding by “standards” and practicing “good judgment,” which of course rules me out of all consideration.  As for the latter, I plan to leave behind a grisly tableau that will leave forensic androids scratching their cerebral servos for centuries to come, so what remains of me is apt to be a mealy puree in the bottom of a mop bucket.  I suppose they can bury whatever drips from the squeegee if they’d like, but my theory of the mind prevents me from reckoning that as funeral attendance per se.

The difficulty, alas, is that I find weddings tragic and funerals absurd.  I’ll focus on the latter today, since it bears on the moral of our story.  You see, here is my quandary:  I have an excellent memory, and I am capable of forming independent judgments of character.  This, as you might imagine, is a source of great personal sadness, and it bears heavily on my approach to funeral-going.

What often happens, at least in my experience, is that we suffer the lives of many others secondhand, filtered through some narrating intermediary.  So, for example, we might learn about a boss we’ve never met from a disgruntled employee, or we might learn about some tyrannical parent from a put-upon teen.  People vent, and when they vent they tend to blow toward those ears they suspect will be sympathetic to their plight.  Such sympathy often leads to an intimacy of one kind or another, and the like-minded listener may well commiserate with the disgruntled and the put-upon, feeling deeply for their suffering and forming strong opinions about the abominable boss or parent in question.

Do you catch my drift, Dear Reader?  Were one of my generally sympathetic disposition, one might well hear of the behavior of such others only when they were at their worst:  those times when they gave great offense to our narrating intimates, those times when they were most thoughtless, ignorant, selfish, or cruel.  Given such consistent accounts, I might well develop an informed opinion of the character in question–an opinion that is not necessarily subject to complication or leavening by all the other material my intimate opted not to share.  So at day’s end, when it comes time to don the black suit, I might only know of the decedent as a monstrous mother, a frightful father, a deplorable daughter, or an insufferable son.  That’s the frame of mind I would be obliged to hide at the funeral home, and I would spend much of my time suspecting others of harboring the same sense of the dead, even as we expressed sorrow for his or her loss.

This, in a manner analogous to my prior post, is the sum and substance of our experience of stories.  We get only what we see, the words, thoughts, and behaviors offered up for our appraisal, and we fill in the imaginative blanks therefrom, often in consistent colors.  The color scheme we opt for, however, need not be the one the author would like us to choose, nor can she be certain of her power to paint over the scheme we have chosen.  Following a recent screening of Beowulf in Grendel, for example, the class quite reasonably concluded that the director wanted us to feel sympathy and/or pity for Grendel, a troll-boy bereft of his troll-father and thus hellbent on troll-vengeance.  Because Grendel was also guilty of rape, however, many members of the class opted out of that forgiving assessment.  Those viewers, also behaving quite reasonably, selected the incident that mattered most to them, formed their opinions, and dismissed the rest as irrelevant.  If the director intended to overwrite or override that valuation, he would have to devise some means of eclipsing that incident in the viewer’s memory, and I think it an impossible stain to efface.  Like the good book says, sometimes dead is better.

In life this effect can be appalling to witness from a distance.  We might watch a breaking story on some terrible crime and later see follow-up reports from family members and neighbors, all of them intent on representing the character they knew–a fully-realized individual incapable of such an act.  And at funerals, particularly those we attend as the friends of mourners, we lack a rounded understanding of the person they knew, even if the complex business of knowing (which for them included the good, the bad, and a great deal in between) is momentarily inflected by their sense of loss.  If we as companion comforters are only privy to the bad, those horror stories passed on to us at times of stress and strife, then the work of sympathy becomes incredibly difficult.  Strong stories are hard to rewrite, even when time is on our side.

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The Marzipan Man

Let me tell you about Harry.  Harry was, in the parlance of the Wandlessian realm, a GNU, or Genuinely Nice ‘Umanoid.  In my lifetime, I have known exactly four GNUs; perhaps you know one, too.  A GNU is, as the acronym might imply, genuinely nice, and when I say “genuinely” in this context I mean consistently, concertedly, and constitutionally nice.  He was nice to everyone, warm, kind, and generous with his time; he was always ready to lend a sympathetic ear to anyone who needed it, and he always offered those needy folk sound, heartening advice; he was well-loved by people of all stripes, who responded warmly and almost intuitively to his self-evident GNUminosity.

What I’m saying, in essence, is that I did not know Harry very well at all.

It may seem dismissive of me to thumb through the annals of my personal history and find precisely four GNUs therein, and you would not be wrong to think me a terrible person for doing so.  (I am one of those beings who wanders the earth with a finite supply of niceness, though I hope I am sympathetic and at least polite most of the time.)  I freely concede, in fact, that I actually know many nice people.  I would argue, however, that those folks may not properly be assigned to the GNU category because I am somewhat more familiar with them.  And that familiarity would oblige me to footnote and asterisk their niceness, noting various conditions and restrictions that might apply to its evocation and expression.

This is, I think, not at all uncommon.  Even the most benevolent of people, if we know them long and well enough, will betray an occasional aversion.  I know a very nice man who simply cannot brook door-to-door solicitors; I know a very nice woman who, in her capacity as a customer service critter, has come to detest a handful of customers.  I know people who struggle to be nice at certain times or at certain places.   We’re only human, or mostly so, which is what makes GNUs so special.

I am thinking about GNUs today because a writer friend of mine insists that a character in her newest novel is, essentially, Person X.  The character is not derived from, based upon, or inspired by Person X–to her thinking it is Person X, an exact likeness, drawn to the life.  She feels she did not create Person X so much as she transcribed him.

Because I am a terrible person (and that’s something of a persistent subtext you’ll find in these pages), I think she’s flat-out wrong.  (I won’t tell her that, of course, because I am sometimes nice.)  What she’s done, I know, is taken the observable behaviors of Person X, perhaps augmented them with what she believes are candid and revealing expressions of his essence (his words, the opinions of others, and the like), and then assembled them in a way that conveys to her the result with clarity and precision.   My none-too-adventurous surmise, however, is that her vision is a fiction, that Person X is far more a production of her imagination than an apprehension of his essence.  That’s no condemnation of what my writer friend has achieved; it’s a basic fact of authorial existence.

Even though my memories of Harry are fond ones, I have no doubt that there were facets of his character I simply never saw.  Were I to try to characterize Harry, I would be utterly at a loss–I simply don’t know how a GNU might work.  I could perhaps reproduce some instance of his genuine niceness faithfully, but anything beneath that surface would be an educated guess of my own manufacture.  I could amalgamate, approximate, and simulate, combining and devising ideas of niceness to serve up a glimmering of motive, method, or meaning, but that would be no more Harry than this figurine (he said, gesturing to the figurine on the shelf above him) is Harry.  The same holds true when I try to depict a woman, a Asian-American, a senior citizen, or a millionaire:  I can fashion the fictional equivalent of a marzipan shell of the being in question based on things I’ve seen, but I would have to fill it with noggin-nougat, the stuff of invention (which is, in this metaphor, delicious).

This, I hesitate to tell my writing friend, is a peril of the profession.  Every character we commit to print or pixels is a vestige of the self–a reflection, projection, or comparable emanation.  They do not reveal others so much as they reveal what we believe, hope, or suspect about others.

If I believed she were genuinely nice, I might make the attempt.

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Why I Am So Angry (Part 1 of a 418-part series)

Most folks that encounter me probably think of me as a placid, even-keeled personality.  I don’t get discernibly angry in any public context, though my default expression is a frown (though the Youth of America have a somewhat more colorful term for it).  Some think me dispassionate by extension, however, which is not at all the case.  In the comfort of my ancestral manse, the vast and melancholy Wrackwell Abbey, I rage and froth and crow like Nicolas Cage with an underwritten role.  In other spheres I try to behave in a more seemly manner.

What riles me up?   I’m terribly glad you asked, or this might have been a hard paragraph (and series) to start.  What riles me up most, at least at this particular moment on this particular Thursday morning, is a casual attitude about time–more specifically, a casual attitude about the time of others.  For the most part, I accept that most human beings are scarcely civilized narcissists:  we think of ourselves and consult our own self-interest before we concern ourselves with the needs of others.  I think that practice, generally speaking, is quite right and proper.  Who is better qualified to see to our welfare than the man in the mirror (Michael Jackson and The Candyman notwithstanding)?  As it turns out, alas, our daily rounds generally oblige us to act with other human beings, and during those interactions most folks take pains not to act like savage sociopaths.  It is a nicety upon which our civilization depends.

My self-absorption is worse than most, a fact that I freely concede, but I know that it falls to me to address it.  I keep to myself when I can; I go to the gym at 6:00am, when crowds are thinnest; I attend to my grocery shopping on weekends before most people are awake, and normally at places where I can check out my purchases myself.  Those are concessions I make to my own social awkwardness.  When faced with public instances of existential obliviousness–the customer, for example, who hobnobs with a cashier, who fishes in his pockets for change, and who then opts to write a check, indifferent to the length of the line behind him–I do my best to imagine the sort of hidden motives that might compel such behavior.  Perhaps such a customer is terribly lonely, is doing his best to defer a return to a horrible home, or simply has a few minutes to kill before some other obligation.  It might be nice if he were as eager to leave the scene (and in doing so to accommodate others) as I generally am, but those occasions give me a chance to practice empathy.  I hope that such imaginative exercise informs my writing to some degree.

In a vacuum, however–and those who choose (or are chosen by) the writing life tend to inhabit vacuums, at least in a professional sense–those self-involved expenditures of time feel much more intrusive.  Most committee meetings, for example, only begin when the last of the latecomers arrive, and I (who made it a point to arrive ten minutes early) am left to make awkward small talk; likewise, I might agree to write a letter of reference as soon as I receive some needful materials and then wait for weeks for those materials to arrive, a delay that typically finds me rejiggering leisure hours to meet a formerly faraway deadline that is suddenly pressing.  On such occasions, when self-involvement bursts the egoistic bubbles of others, resentment and rancor begin to incubate.  It becomes hard to commit time to folks when one cannot be certain one’s own time is held in equally high regard.

Paradoxically–and I am nothing if not paradoxical–these daily deferrals and trials of patience have made me much more comfortable with the long stretches of silence that normally attend the submission of my work for publication.  I paid a visit to a writers’ message board this morning, and many, many threads were devoted to the censure of sundry editors and presses who are guilty of unconscionable sloth (unconscionable, at least, in the eyes of these writers).  Sublime egoist though I may be, however, I know that when I submit work to a journal that I am the one imposing, that I am the one asking a stranger to invest time in me, to defer her plans and pleasures for my sake.  It’s awfully hard to be angry at someone who has no obligation to me whatsoever yet who is taking the time to peruse my prose.  As social exchanges go, it’s astonishingly lopsided.

I’ll try to keep that in mind today as I mix and mingle with the world at large.  I’ll try to keep my local footprint to a minimum, knowing full well that my gigantical clownfeet are assuredly tromping all over someone else’s days and ways.

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Raze the Dead

Today I took a little time to review my prior posts and determined, despite my fondness for masochists, that no one deserves to suffer so much.  While those posts arise from fairly wholesome motives, they are existentially, rhetorically, and professionally equivalent to 1% milk.  And anyone who likes 1% milk is no friend of mine.  Go skim, go whole, or go home.

Were I feeling more apologetic I’d probably try to justify why those posts were such bland pap; let’s just write the lot off as a slow death by half-measures.  I can do better, and I will.

I’ll start by exhuming old bones; I’ve lately begun to believe I misunderstood their place in the Wandlessian fossil record.  It’s never too late to set things straight if you’ve got a good shovel and some time on your hands.

That should suffice as a preamble.  Okey-dokey?  Here we go.

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