Marginalia, no.344

World’s Largest Earwig Is Declared Extinct

~ BBC headline

Flush with cash after his starring role in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Giant Earwig spent more than three decades in a drug-addled stupor until he was recently found dead in a North Hollywood gutter.

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Finding Yourself Locked Out

For the first time, I locked us out of the house. It was Sunday evening and we were taking the kids to see a movie. I was the last one to step outside. I pulled the door closed behind me and immediately recognized what I had done. The wife had not brought her keys and we had no spare hidden away. My daughter insisted on checking everyone’s pockets for herself but it was no good. Home was inaccessible, nor could we get into the car. It was dark and getting cold, but we had our coats. At least it wasn’t raining. At least I had my phone and was able to call the emergency locksmith. Forty minutes and $140 later, we were back inside, and we made a later showing of the movie. All told, it was a very minor inconvenience, but it startled me: my inability to shelter my family or myself, the insecurity of our security, the ease with which we were exposed.

My daughter – the pocket checker – has recently discovered new anxieties. Mostly they turn on the question of her health. She suddenly feels funny. Is her heart beating too quickly? Is her breathing okay? Will she choke on her dinner? These fears, I’m sure, have something to do with her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis and the last two-and-a-half years of worry and chemotherapy and frank conversations between Mama and Papa in the kitchen. Her uncle also had a heart attack, and Papa himself talks a lot about trying to avoid one. A few days ago, putting my daughter to bed, she asked for assurance that she would wake up in the morning. She worried that by letting go of herself in sleep she might slip accidentally into death. Sweetheart, I told her, have you ever died in your sleep before? No? Don’t worry, then. You won’t lock yourself out of tomorrow morning by stepping into the dark tonight.

If man is born in freedom, with infinite possible futures open to him, the fact of living at all will require that he is locked out, finally, from nearly all of them. Sometimes further accommodation is simply not possible. We age and grow and so lock ourselves out of the womb, out of childhood, out of our parents’ home, out of youth. We make friends and pursue lovers and so exclude ourselves from other friends and other lovers. We make any number of choices, but eventually there comes a final door for each of us. We will step through it and it will close and we will find that we have left the key inside. Eventually, then, we do step into a night (cold and black, or warm and bright with stars – who can say?) which locks us out of tomorrow morning. Dithering in the hall, however, you find that straining to hold open multiple doors at once will get you – precisely – nowhere. Like death, life only happens when you lock yourself out.

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Over at The Dabbler they’ve republished one of my bits on the joys of working for a living.

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Marginalia, no.343

The handle should return to the horizontal when the flow of water ceases. Should it fail to do so, agitate it gently until it succeeds.

~ Evelyn Waugh, in a note instructing guests on the use of his home toilet

Inspiration is frequently associated with the restroom, eloquence less so. Reading materials in our bathroom at home are limited to back issues of National Geographic and Audubon. Our toilet, however, has the same trouble as Mr Waugh’s, so I may as well pin up his note for the benefit of our guests. There’s nothing like a perfectly satisfying sentence.

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Me and Lizzy

Great Grandma Koboldt and Me

I knew two of my great-grandmothers, and was close to one of them, but I have a picture of myself as an infant in the arms of a third, and of this one I have no memory. She lived halfway across the country, we rarely saw her, and she died when I was still small. In the photograph she is smiling and holding me like a football, or like a platter of fruit which she has just found in a surprising place. She is wearing a striped muumuu and, clearly, a wig. We are in the hallway of her home in Jefferson, Iowa. There’s an American flag to one side and a shelf full of plastic flowers and knick-knacks. Behind us, at the edge of the picture and atop a piece of furniture, there is discernible the antler and ear of a painted deer statue that would later inhabit the atrium of my grandparents’ home in Concord, California. The picture must have been taken in late 1973 or early ’74.

What I know about this great-grandmother I can summarize in one paragraph. Elizabeth Ann Wilson was born in Greene County, Iowa on New Year’s Day 1889. People called her Lizzy. She was the daughter of George Wilson and Hannah Naylor. She married my great-grandfather Charlie and they had one child, a daughter, who would become my paternal grandmother. Lizzy was a schoolteacher. In a box somewhere I have a copy of a Philology textbook from which she taught, with her notes in the margins. According to my grandmother, my great-grandfather once discovered that Lizzy kept a bottle of whiskey hidden in a cupboard. From this single episode my grandmother – a lifelong teetotaler – concluded that her mother was a secret alcoholic. Lizzy began to slide into dementia when she got quite old. The Apollo moon landings she believed to have been staged in Hollywood. Airplanes to her were demons screaming through the sky.

Every Christmas my wife and I agree that we ought to print more of our family photographs rather than store them on the computer, but we never get around to it. The other day my wife confided that, in fact, she had mixed feelings about owning very many printed photographs, even of the children. The trouble, she said, is that in the end they all go tragically astray. At best they are kept in the family for a few generations and then are lost or thrown out. More likely they end up in bins at antiques shops or in the hands of strangers for whom the faces in the pictures suggest nothing more than an era or a puzzle of relationships and circumstances. Our names and biographies effaced, new ones are imagined for us by people whose names and stories we ourselves will never know. Cut off from us, our images live an afterlife of their own. But this thought does not produce in me the same dismay that my wife feels.

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Marginalia, no.342

[B]ut since I attained the state of Sanctification at the age of seven I have never felt the slightest twinge of conscience, never experienced for one second the sense of sin.

~ Logan Pearsall Smith, Unforgotten Years

This explains why Smith became a critic rather than a novelist. The novelist needs at least a vestigial sense of sin in order to be artistically successful. The critic is always glad to cast the first stone.

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Magus Books, Seattle

The wife and kids and I were briefly in Seattle last week to celebrate a friend’s wedding. We stayed at a hotel in the University District four blocks from one of my very favorite used bookshops. Magus Books, thank God, does not change. With its musty-merry smell, its creaky wooden floors, its barely navigable aisles and long counters and tables piled nose-high with new acquisitions, it was no different than when I first discovered it twenty-three years ago.

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