After Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg’s husband dies,
she says when people say, “How’re you doing?”
she wants to say, “My husband just died. How do you
think I’m doing?” I’m sure those people mean well.
I’m sure almost all of them say, “Oh, sorry, how
thoughtless of me,” just as I’m certain that a resentful
minority might think, “Jeez, bite my head off, lady—
I was only trying to be nice.” Sheryl Sandberg’s
suggestion is that you ask people how they’re doing
today, because if you ask people how they’re doing
in general, they’ll tell you that their husband died
or they lost their job or their son’s in prison, whereas
if you say how are you doing today, they’re more likely
to say they had a really good blueberry muffin for breakfast
or they’re heading to a job interview or they just got
a letter from their son, who’s actually doing very well
in prison, who’d have thought. Almost nothing turns out
the way we think it will: In the piazza, Mercutio
is fencing with Tybalt, and Romeo tries to break them up
by throwing himself between them, so Tybalt takes
advantage of the confusion by reaching around Romeo
and thrusting home. Mercutio is stabbed fatally,
and Romeo cradles his friend in his arms and tries
to comfort him, but all Mercutio can say is, “Why
the devil came you between us? I was hurt under
your arm.” Romeo was trying to be a good guy,
and now he’ll remember forever that his best friend
chewed him out on his deathbed. You don’t have
to do everything as long as everything you do is good:
you can study a new language or you can volunteer
at the homeless shelter, but you can’t study a new
language or sell drugs to school kids, just as you
can’t mug old ladies or volunteer at the homeless
shelter. It’s your call, as it was for Sir Alexander
Fleming, who was experimenting with the flu virus
in 1928 when he left for a two-week vacation, but not
before stacking all his cultures on a bench in his lab.
He returned to find that a fungus had contaminated
one of the cultures, though the cultures that were farther
away were flourishing. History tells us Fleming said,
“That’s funny,” not yet realizing that he had stumbled
across a fungus called penicillium and that his sloppiness
would result in the discovery of its derivative, penicillin,
which would change medicine forever. Sometimes
it’s the smallest of things, that is, if it’s even possible
for something to be small. E. M. Forster says it isn’t:
“Every little trifle does seem incalculably important
today,” says the novelist, “and when you say of a thing
that nothing hangs on it, it sounds like blasphemy.
There's never any knowing,” says Forster, “which
of our actions, which of our idlenesses won't have things
hanging on it forever.” Sir Alexander Fleming published
his research in 1929, but little attention was paid to it.
Too, cultivating penicillium in quantity proved difficult,
and it was years before other scientists figured out how
to mass-produce the stuff, which they did by D-Day
in 1944 so they could treat the Allied wounded.
As for the flu virus, Fleming never made any headway
with that, either, though Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis
developed a flu vaccine in 1938, and Salk used the lab skills
he picked up working on it to produce a polio vaccine
in 1952. Let’s review: Sir Alexander Fleming
was careless, and what came of that carelessness?
Penicillin, flu vaccine, polio vaccine. But enough
about him. How are you today? What did you do?
I’d say plenty. You opened a door for somebody,
though you didn’t know you did: you introduced
a friend to someone who’ll be helpful to them
ten years from now, or you gave someone a novel
that will keep her from making a bad marriage,
or you made an offhand remark that you won’t
remember, though the other person will, and one day
what you said will mean everything to her. You opened
a door. See it? It’s not a big door. It’s not the door
in the room you’re sitting in now or even in the next room
over. It’s at the end of the hall. It’s not used much.
It’s a door that could stand a coat of paint, and there’s
a spider web hanging from its handle. It might even
be locked. You can’t open it yourself, though the person
you’re with can. She won’t walk through it for years.
To My Body
I’m listening to a lecture on W. E. Henley, author of “Invictus,” the poem that ends
“I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul,”
when the lecturer notes that Henley underwent the amputation of his left leg
when he was barely out of his teens and, after his recovery,
worked as a journalist, writing on society and current events and trying to be
a bohemian or, as the lecturer says, “as much as you can be a bohemian
on one leg,”
and I think, can’t you be a bohemian on one leg as well as two? After all,
a bohemian is little more than someone who lives an unconventional
and more or less artistic lifestyle. As far as I can tell, there’s no requirement
regarding a certain number of legs.
Henley’s great friend was Robert Louis Stevenson, who wore his hair long
and favored velveteen jackets and thus was something
of a bohemian himself, though he wrote the most unbohemian novel ever,
namely, Treasure Island, a tale of manly men if ever there was one,
including the pirate Long John Silver, whose physical description
is based on the person of, that’s right, W. E. Henley.
Stevenson's stepson said Henley was "a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow
with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever,
and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality;
he swept one off one's feet,”
and after Treasure Island was published, Stevenson himself wrote Henley and said,
“I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength
and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver . . . the idea of the maimed man,
ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”
That settles that, then. You can be a bohemian with one leg and probably no legs
at all, should it come to that.
Here’s another puzzler for you: when you hear someone say, “My fiancé is in
New York” or “I just was talking to my fiancée, and she said such and so,”
or “Wait, you have a fiancée?”
If you paid attention to everything everybody said, you’d go crazy, but whenever
you hear somebody use the word “fiancé” or “fiancée,” you can’t help
looking at them.
Already I’m tired of the extra “e.” Why can’t other languages be as dumb as ours.
Also, what’s the point of getting engaged? When I asked Barbara to marry me,
I said, “Would you rather have a big ring or go to Paris?” and she said,
“Où est mon valise!”
Next thing you know, we are tramping down the Boulevard St. Germain and up
the Boulevard St. Michel and sampling oysters, mussels, prawns, lobsters,
and squid, gazing deeply into each other’s eyes as we do so.
“To turn from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything,"
said Elizabeth Bowen.
Boy, were you ever right about that, Elizabeth. Unless, of course, it’s Jean-Paul Sartre’s
Camus saw Sartre over-wooing a pretty girl and wondered why he didn’t play it cool,
as Camus himself would have.
“You’ve seen my face?” Sartre answered. And he’s not the only one: James Baldwin
is famous for saying, “I could talk away my looks in ten minutes,”
and Prufrock thinks, “There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet
the faces that you meet”
or to don the Invisible Mask, as David Bowie called it: the story goes that the pop star
was meeting a group of schoolchildren,
and one especially is shy and withdrawn, so Bowie says he’ll meet with him separately,
and he tells the boy he’s wearing an invisible mask
and says, “I always feel afraid, just the same as you, but I wear this mask every day,”
and he takes his invisible mask off
and gives it to the boy and spins another mask out of nothing and says, “Now
we’ve both got invisible masks,
and no one knows we’re wearing them.” And the boy, who is now the man telling
says, “It was the first time I felt safe in my whole life.” Feeling safe: that’s the thing,
Another person, whether he or she be a fiancé or fiancée or something else entirely,
makes us feel as though we’ll never be lonely and afraid again,
that we are indeed the captains of our souls.
W. E. Henley had a daughter, Margaret, who was beloved by all and sundry,
including another writer who was at least as famous
as Robert Louis Stevenson, and Margaret called this other writer her “friendy,”
but she couldn’t pronounce her Rs,
so the word came out as "fwendy" and often "fwendy-wendy," whence the name
“Wendy Darling,” protagonist of,
that’s right, Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie’s classic adventure tale for kids of all ages—
immortal adventure tale, I should say,
since Peter Pan will always be loved by its readers as well fans of its myriad
stage and film versions.
Art is long, life is short, say the old Romans. Margaret Henley’s life was certainly short;
she was sickly at birth and died at the age of five.
Our bodies have a lot to answer for, don’t they? They’re so careless! They lose their parts
or they expire abruptly or they’re simply displeasing to the eyes, our own as well as
the eyes of others.
Though when our bodies work right, they give us so much pleasure.
Amy Schumer calls an orgasm “the one good thing we’re allowed as humans.”
Truer words, Amy, truer words! Though pecan pie is a close second.
O body, when you were five, you were hospitalized with polio.
O body, you wore braces and then you took them off, but look how skinny
your legs are to this day.
O body, your owner played sports in high school, none well.
O body, how you love to eat! O body, you love soul food best
because that is what you grew up on,
but you also love food of every kind, from chili dogs to foie gras
and warm goat cheese salad.
O body, they say we should dance as though no one is looking,
and you do, even though everyone is looking.
O body, you remind me every day to apply sunblock with an SPF
of 50 or higher
and to reapply it after I shout, “Can opener!” and jump in the pool
in my baggy board shorts,
frightening the children whose bodies their mommies clasp
to their own so the little tykes won’t be afraid of the loud man
in the baggy board shorts.
O body, you love to watch every kind of movie, from popcorn movies
to gloomy indie flicks set in locales visited only by filmmakers,
O body, you love to listen to every kind of music in the record store,
from early baroque to psychobilly and crust punk,
though you are happiest in the aisle marked “Early Rhythm ‘n’ Blues,”
bluegrass not so much.
O body, you make jokes, even if they don’t always work,
and in this you show humility, because the joke is always on you.
O body, you love alcohol—you loved it in great quantities once,
but now you love it even more in small ones.
O body, you love LSD and mescaline, coke and weed not so much.
O body, the body of your father lived to be 88 and that of your mother
to 99, meaning you are likely to live a good long time yourself.
O body, what will you do if you live that long?
O body, let’s hope it’s possible for old people to use heroin then.
O body, I don’t sleep as well as I’d like to, but when I wake up
in the middle of the night,
I always say a little prayer of thanks to you, my body, for being there
to keep me company until I doze off again.
And when I wake, the first thing I do is touch you to make sure
you’re still there, and you always are.
O body, you gaze upon the major as well as the minor art works,
from the refrigerator scrawls of nieces and nephews
to the masterpieces of the Uffizi and the Louvre, and once you took the train
to look at Luca Signorelli’s frescoes that show the body doing everything
a body can do:
rise to heaven with the angels, descend to hell with the demons, sell itself
in the marketplace to lewd old men
yet mainly be born again, emerging from the earth as a bony skeleton
that puts on its body as though it were a costume.
O body, you are my fiancé, for we are two or I wouldn’t be addressing you
this way, yet we are one.
O body, we will go to the grave together.
O body, you are an atheist, yet you thank God for every day.
David Kirby's collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2007. Kirby is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.” Kirby’s honors include fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His latest poetry collection is Get Up, Please.