Recovery, after a lengthy break, is happening. And it’s been greatly augmented by P.G. Wodehouse.
I had a really cool boyfriend after Mr. Wrong while I finished up college. His name was Stephen Mayhew, and he was getting an MFA in film at University of Utah. I met him when he was casting his movie, which I don’t think he ever finished.
He was wonderful in many ways. He spoke fluent French, the result of a stint as a Mormon missionary. I’d love to take credit for turning him away from the church, but he’d already started working his way out of it. We saw multiple movies every weekend, spending a lot of time at the Blue Mouse, Salt Lake City’s art theater attached to the glorious and greatly lamented Cosmic Aeroplane emporium, which included a book store, head shop, and punk boutique. It was, after all, the early 80s.
Jeeves, Sensei Supreme
Stephen read like crazy, even more than I did, and turned me onto P.G. Wodehouse. One recurring character, a man named Psmith, possesses an ear so delicately attuned as to be able to hear whether or not someone is pronouncing the silent P. That’s Wodehouse, not Psmith, in the picture.
But his most glorious creation is Jeeves, an unflappable butler who serves upper-class twit supreme Bertie Wooster.
Bertie: This is a bit steep, Jeeves.
Jeeves: Approaching the perpendicular, Sir.
It’s not easy to find a representative exchange that properly transmits the artistry of their dialogue. Much of the joy of reading the Jeeves books is in the way the conversations perfectly limn each character. You can see Wooster blustering and blowing his way through a charmed post-adolescence, oblivious to the bloated mid-life just round the bend. Jeeves stands by unperturbed as glass, other than an eyebrow raised an exact eighth of an inch. You never doubt that Jeeves would know the smallest Imperial measurements by heart.
I didn’t read every Wodehouse book—there are dozens—but I read a bunch. They’re wonderfully funny, and better explained in this New Yorker article by Riva Galchen.
P.G. Wodehouse, Zen Master
However, Galchen isn’t writing to regale us with examples from the Wodehouse canon, but about the author’s time spent in a German internment camp at the age of 60, after being wrested from his home in France. There’s a whole fascinating story about the aftermath, which involves a great deal of British high dudgeon, and it’s too hard to explain and very well-written, so just read the article (it’s linked again at the bottom of the quote below). But what struck me was this quote Galchen uses, from a Saturday Evening Post article Wodehouse wrote after the internment ended:
…he writes of going to sleep on the floor of his cramped cell: “My last waking thought, I remember, was that, while this was a hell of a thing to have happened to a respectable old gentleman in his declining years, it was all pretty darned interesting and that I could hardly wait to see what the morrow would bring forth.”Wartime for Wodehouse, Rita Galchen, The New Yorker
Pretty Darned Interesting, Indeed
Obviously, the recent Abuse post didn’t come out of a vacuum. I dislike the word “trigger” because I feel it’s used as if triggers are something to be avoided. Implicit to the word’s usage seems to me a sense that, if someone else does trigger you, Shame on Them!
But isn’t life a series of triggers? And of course, it sucks to be triggered. But you have multiple options in dealing with it. And you damn well better try and learn from it.
The truth is that, until the recent Trigger Situation, my life over the last number of years has been as charmed as Bertie Wooster’s. I mean, this is my view. I meditate on a freaking dock on a lake, gazing at actual lotus pads. It’s like a freaking Nancy Meyers movie. And I don’t even like her.
There’ve been some rough patches, but certainly they’ve tended to be 5% kind of problems. Feeling I had to justify my happiness, I told people that for vast swaths, my life had been distinctly uncharmed.
Prior and for the few days following the Abuse post, I was experiencing the roughest patch yet. But for the first time, thanks to Zen and some tremendous help from spouse and siblings, I have begun to see it as a darned interesting time.
Zen, Wodehouse-like, counsels you to say, wow, isn’t that interesting? I’m angry, how interesting. Let me observe: What’s happening to my body? Whoa, my entire right jaw is clenching hard enough it might break. I’m scared, how interesting. My shoulders are suddenly curling inward.
Hello, demons. A bunch of you just bubbled up from some damn place. You’re darned interesting. And when I look at you in that way, just observe you without getting all scared and running away from you or trying to kung fu you to death, I see that, poor buggers, you’re kinda pathetic.
As Zen masters say, Attention, attention, attention.
I must, in the aftermath, continue to pay attention. And continue to find it darned interesting.
I’m writing in the wake of the recent long-overdue and continuing protests over police brutality and the lethal inequity we find in the Land of the Free. Even at its worst, my life hasn’t even grazed the kind of horror visited on George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and a list that wraps around the entire country.
It seems more imperative than ever now to deal as concisely as possibly with one’s personal shit. We are needed. We need to be interested, to pay attention, to realize that you can’t be neutral on a moving train (thanks to Howard Zinn for the metaphor). Only then can we act in ways that make sense, that aren’t all about us clinging to some illusion of comfort that we desperately want to maintain, but which is, as noted, an illusion.
Wodehouse, unheralded Zen master, said, “I can detach myself from the world. If there is a better world to detach oneself from than the one functioning at the moment I have yet to hear of it.”
Detachment does not mean disinterest, but rather realizing that the stories we cling to are just that, stories. We can let ’em go, we can move forward. That’s the direction we need to go.
This is what we got, folks. Let’s try and make it work.
The Marcus Aurelius Moment* for 8-June, 2020
From Stephen Mayhew, that I was kind of good at writing, how to order in a French restaurant, and that just because things don’t work out the way you planned, they still work out.
*In the first part of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman ruler details what various people in his life have taught him. To read the full intro to why I care about Marcus Aurelius, click here.