Sunday, January 30, 2005

To Mr. Big Daddy, America (That Sound Kind of Beat. Cool.)

In my late teens there were three works of literary composition I loved: Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." From my point of view, if you rolled them all together you got my father and you got me. What you got was dads with varying degrees of competence and aspiration as they tried to survive in America, and none of them quite managing; you had sons with varying degrees of competence and aspiration as they tried to survive their dad's efforts to survive in America, and none of these sons quite managing either.

This kind of blaming overlooks the fact that these ineffectual dads all had dads of their own, if we are arbitrarily uncoupling the excuse train at only a certain point. I expect that Stephen Sondheim and I will soon announce plans for "Grandads, or the Cutting of Slack, a Musical in Three Acts." But today I am not thinking about the dadcentric aspects of these three works but of a small corner of only one of them.

That's the part near the end of "The Great Gatsby" where Nick Carraway is talking to James Gatz about his son, and Mr. Gatz:

pulled from his pocket a ragged old copy of a book called HOPALONG CASSIDY.

"Look here, this is a book he had when he was a boy. It just shows you."

He opened it at the back cover and turned it around for me to see. On the last fly-leaf was printed the word SCHEDULE, and the date September 12, 1906. and underneath:

Rise from bed ... ... ... ... 6.00 A.M. Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling ..... 6.15-6.30 " Study electricity, etc ... ... ... 7.15-8.15 " Work ... ... ... ... ... . 8.30-4.30 P.M. Baseball and sports ... ... ... . 4.30-5.00 " Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00 " Study needed inventions ... ..... 7.00-9.00 "

GENERAL RESOLVES No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable] No more smokeing or chewing Bath every other day Read one improving book or magazine per week Save $5.00 {crossed out} $3.00 per week Be better to parents

"I come across this book by accident," said the old man. "It just shows you, don't it?"

The happy little throwaway I love is the faith of young Jimmy Gatz that his single greatest investment of time should be in preparation for inventing. So much is needed. So much is still possible. I do not think this little joke is totally dismissive in its irony, since Gatsby makes his money, as best I can figure out, through a variety of financial swindles. He has taken the lesser path. Not a needed invention in sight. In a country moving from the agrarian to the industrial model, there were a lot of things you could do if you were good with your hands and "studied your electricity, etc." -- as had Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers.

I assume that modern readers finds this passage almost unrelievedly ironic. Now is the age of the hyper educated specialist and the sophisticated venture capitalist. It is still the American way to yearn to innovate, but generally speaking today you need to know a great deal about some subsection of a subsection of a subsection of a footnote to the dust from a sliver of a fraction of the sum total of human knowledge to make some swell new thing. Even your venture capitalist has to know enough to calculate if someone else knows so much more than enough to warrant a longshot bet. And most of those bets don't pay off, no matter how much brilliance gathers at the table, as the venture capitalist knows.

Thus, I understand my own personal wonderful idea will never make me a fortune, given the fact my particular expertise revolves around knowing the difference between "lay" and "lain." But if someday someone remembers I was the one who said, "The future is about to go thataway, pardners," well, put it on my pot in the columbarium and I will be content.

What an idea it is. Get this: Hanging around your neck is a little module just crammed with, you know, memory chips and things. What you do is tell this little module all your favorite stories about childhood, personal miseries, blighted romance, sexual awakening, smart conversational comebacks, ripostes in general, dirty jokes, inspirational insights, work complaints, homemaking hints, various apologies for things that weren't your fault in the first place, honest regret and the latest antics of your pet or child or grandchild.

Now, the next time you tell one of these stories to someone, the module -- let's call it Boor Be Gone, or BBG -- recognizes the story and also the voice of the person to whom you are telling it, assuming you let them get a word in. And then the next time you tell this same story to the same person thinking it's the first time, BBG sends a powerful and painful electric shock through you body knocking you to the ground.

And if the storyteller dies as a result, so be it.

Or it could just beep.

Of course, there would be an override, so in the case of those intimate relationships -- I think primarily of some family relationships, most marriages and all romances -- you might get a mild tingle every tenth iteration of these familiar stories. I accept the fact that from some people we want to hear some stories over and over again, if only because only under those circumstances will these other people listen to our stories.

Hmmmm. I also accept the fact I may have said all this to you before. And here you are back again just because I said you might be mentioned in the will. You love to hear about the will, don't you? Let me begin at the beginning....

Addendum: Yes, I meant "boor." Some homonyms are especially apt.


Anonymous said...

What's this got to do with your sex life?

....J.Michael Robertson said...

We all remember the old Rorschach inkblot joke that ends, "You're the one who's showing me all the dirty pictures."