Measured Extravagance

03 October 2002 - 2:38 p.m.

First, a shout-out to Swoop and her love of shoes:

. . . it would be more practical, more sensible, to save the money and invest it in kitchen tools. She needed a food processor more than she needed sandals.

"Are you going to listen to the good angel or the bad angel?"

"Mia." Vaguely embarrassed at being caught daydreaming over a pair of shoes, Nell laughed. "You startled me."

"Great sandals. On sale, too."

"They are?"

Mia tapped the glass just below the Sale sign. "My favorite four-letter word. I smell possibilities, Nell. Let's shop."

"Oh, but I really shouldn't. I don't need anything."

"You really do need work." Mia tossed back her hair, took Nell's elbow in a firm grip, much like a mother with a stubborn child. "Shopping for shoes has nothing to do with need, and everything to do with lust. Do you know how many pairs of shoes I own?"


"Neither do I," she said as she strong-armed Nell into the shop. "Isn't that wonderful? They have these slacks in a candy-cane pink..."

    - Nora Roberts, Dance Upon the Air

[No, I'm generally not for mindless materialism, but both Mia and Nell are extremely mindful characters for most of the book. Which, come to think of it, is partly why I find this scene rather adorable.]

Some provocative quotes from Alec Wilkinson's My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship with William Maxwell (as in, I don't necessarily endorse or even identify with them, but I found them interesting):

[ pages 24-25] Having my most intimate friend be nearly twice my age did not seem unusual to me, partly because I am no longer captivated by things that younger people are concerned with. I attribute this to having been the youngest by far in a family of four brothers. Every privilege, every opportunity, every excitement and pleasure appeared to be reserved for people older than I was. When I arrived at a landmark I had seen on the horizon, my brothers had given it up for another that was just as remote. What was behind me didn't seem valuable. I also don't much care what younger people are interested in because I was young, and I remember what it was like. I have no desire to have the same experiences, or to reeanct them at second hand through the experiences of people who now are young. Popular culture tirelessly celebrates excess, outrage, and adolescent beauty, none of which appeals to me anymore. To have too close an interest in the lives of young people at this point in my life [b. 1952] would amount nearly to a perversion. Furthermore, it seems unnatural to me to be unwilling to get older. It takes courage, of course, but the pleasures only deepen, and the most fortunate of us achieve some sort of wisdom.

[ page 112] Writing is a form of truth telling, and it sometimes involves the defeat of one's personality. The wish to be liked. The occasional lack of nerve. The self-consciousness, self-deception, and self-congratulation. The regard for proprieties. Our personalities might be thought of as the gestures, manners, attitudes, and ways of behaving we enact in order to keep other people from knowing what we really are thinking. A great deal of our time we spend looking inward. Behind any matter-of-fact, transparent, busy, ordinary life is a territory marked by regrets, daydreams, memories, secrets, and hidden places of withdrawal. It is difficult to make the outer life and the inner life converge, to conduct ourselves truthfully, which is different from saying wounding things to others and congratulating ourselves for cultivating the virtue of candor.

And last, but not least:

[page 172] Maxwell believed that existence in any form is a privilege and that people ought to have more courage.

Another New Yorker note: last week's issue has a marvelous essay by Adam Gopnik on "Charlie Ravioli" - his daughter's imaginary friend; a friend so 21st century that he never has time to meet with Olivia (Gopnik's exchanges with his psychologist sister on the subject had me laughing out loud in the store). It got me thinking about the breathless "I'm so busy" journal entries that one encounters everywhere these days(and yes, I plead guilty to my share) - this is both comical and insane, how one rushes about barely connecting with other people and leaving loose ends whipping around in one's wake - but then stopping to knot and touch and stroke things properly and then fearing that one is concentrating on inessentials and peering through the Big Picture of Life through the wrong end of the telescope.

It's not that melodramatic, of course - I'm somewhere in between. I finally put in the October-December pages of my planner and did not copy over every last thing not yet done from the pages I took out. World enough and time there will be, at least for the things that matter.

While checking the New Yorker site for Charlie Ravioli, I poked around the archives and found one of Gopnik's commentaries on 9/11. This, I think, is as good an explication of "September 1, 1939" as any I've seen:

Auden, whose "Funeral Blues" became the semi-official poem of AIDS in the eighties, seems confirmed as the preëminent elegist of our time. Yet "September 1, 1939" was one of the poems that he banished from his collected works, as too sonorous and false (we are all going to die whether we love one another or not). The poem, as Joseph Brodsky once pointed out, is really about shame—about how cultures are infected by overwhelming feelings of shame, their "habit-forming pain," and seek to escape those feelings through violence. What drives men mad—drives them to psychopathic gods—is the unbearable feeling of having been humiliated. The alternative, the poem says, is not to construct our own narrative of shame and redemption, which never really comes in any case, but to follow our authentic self-interest, which means being in touch with the reality of what is and is not actually possible in the world. Although a lot of people have said that the attack marks the end of irony, this poem of the moment is actually pro irony. That affirming flame begins, ironically, as "ironic points of light," meaning the skeptical clarity that sees the world as it is, rather than as our fears would make it.

Two years ago, I admitted "I had never really realized what a heartbreaking song 'Loch Lomond' actually is..."

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