Friday, June 04, 2004

One-Tree Forest

That is to say, as my wife points out, I do have an audience, and she is that audience, and that is certainly audience enough, given the fact she is supportive but not indulgent, having quite a number of “better things” to do than read my “column.” That said, she walks away with a fine undulation of the hips.

And so she introduces a fine new strain of thought, something more than a hearty dose of P. G. Wodehouse’s Buck-U-Uppo. (Editor’s note: Your literary references are not only to Dead White Men but also, almost freaking always, to unfashionably obscure and forgotten Dead White Men. This is not how we creep like a virus into the zeitgeist, little mister.)

Seizing on her comment – which went a good deal further, suggesting if I got additional readers and they made rude noises that I would just get my feelings hurt -- I will now writhe my way out the hole I dug for myself in my last “column.” Wife-mentioning as a way to solve a column’s internal problem reflects another habit of a certain kind of columnist, and that is using the Up Close and Personal to – well, let’s make a list: 1) personalize the scene/the frame/the landscape of the column, thus justifying its casual tone; 2) limit the column's intellectual scope, casting it as domestic dialogue, that most basic of works in progress, conversation between intimates, and so making clear the column ain’t no exercise in profundity, stated or implied.

That last point is particularly suggestive, and I am impressed with myself at thinking it up here seated in my bathrobe drinking coffee one spontaneous regular guy SOB. At some point, of course, I need to go quantitative on this project and read all of the several thousand columns that even now reside on my hard drive. I will read them for many strands and themes, and one will be the degree to which introducing friends and family as ongoing characters reflects… whatever. The fundamental “whatever” is obvious. The columnist of everyday life – who says this is what I think about the microcosm – is obviously different from the columnist of big ideas, the typical Op-Ed syndicated writer who tells us what to think about the macrocosm, the mighty realm of culture and politics. One of my tasks in this project is never to shrink from the obvious, and it’s obvious (I think) that the Paul Krugman’s and Bill Safire’s seldom engage in banter with their Significant Others in their columns. Even if the political columnist’s significant other flows with wisdom like a great water and all his/her ideas come floating down that stream, acknowledging that fact takes up space and diminishes authority – it pulls the prophet down from the soap box.

I think it does…. I’ll ask my wife. Gnawing at the back of my mind is the possibility that Molly Ivins has some trumped-up generic progressive Texan truth speaker in some of her columns…. Still, my bet is that the obvious is true: The big thinkers, the pundits, write expository essays, and the little thinkers give us domestic scenes.

Let me think globally and write locally. Jon Carroll, of the San Francisco Chronicle, writes about his wife Tracy. In print, she frequently deflates his pomposities and excesses, and one of the characteristics – one of the engaging characteristics -- of the personal newspaper columnists (I think) is/often is/may be the fallibility of the columnist. It’s a shtick, a rhetorical device. The perfection of marriage does not survive the friction of everyday life, right?? What are our personal columnists but exemplars of happy imperfection?

Now, to what degree do our pundits admit imperfection? Well, sometimes they do, and how that topic deserves, oh, manyhundredsofwords of its own. I recall that Ellen Goodman used to do a year-end column listing her most egregious errors from the preceding year, and Safire will sometimes do columns in which he makes outrageously over-the-top predictions that he acknowledges almost certainly won’t happen, suggesting its his duty as a pundit to extend the frontiers of argument beyond reason. And, you know, in spite of being so very wrong about so many things, Safire is quite engaging.

That’s an item for my checklist: See if Bill Safire will have a nice long talk with me about how he manages to so slyly serve the forces of absolute evil, or George Bush, whichever comes first. I wonder if he ever mentions his wife?

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