Sunday, February 2, 2014

What I might end up being known for (oh gad)

Do you remember wandering the stacks of your small local public library, say on a stifling summer day when you were twelve, looking at all the books -- and imagining your own Works one day being represented there? Maybe you especially wandered the biography section, and liked to picture your Life one day being there, too. A library, especially a small one, gives such a tidy impression of what is valuable. Here on these shelves, you think, is the result of what creative, vigorous and scholarly people have either created themselves, or dug up and summarized about creative and interesting people. (Why, that's us, of course!) Later on it seems not just the physical tidiness of this collected glory that is so bewitching, it's knowing the roots of it. It's knowing that all this has survived the examination of appropriate gatekeepers, editors and Ph.D program directors who know what is worthwhile or what will make money, or both. Chances are it also first survived the more important examination of a grateful humanity.

Even if you didn't think in precisely these words, I'll bet you floated along blissfully unaware of developing the first symptoms of Biography Syndrome. The syndrome presents, as doctors put it, like this: after simply imagining the fun of being alphabetized on the shelf somewhere after Austen and Bronte, you start to trustfully plan. Given time and plenty of hard work (surely), you too will amass Papers. Correspondence. Drafts. Diaries. Possibly even novels and magazine articles published during your lifetime, if you're lucky. You will do your part. And from these Papers, someone someday will pluck the best. They too will get past the gatekeepers with you under their arm as it were, and you will take your place in a library. Your Works, your Life will jut out from the shelves, to be fingered in passing one summer afternoon by another wondering twelve-year-old in the first soft grip of the Syndrome.

Now the Internet has arrived, we must rethink all this. (Or not -- "of the making of books there is no end," Ecclesiastes sighed many centuries ago.) The Internet and the blogosphere, crammed to overflowing with the thoughts and writings and photos of so many people anxious and able to try their hand at immortality now, makes us realize anew how unlikely it is that any of us will be noticed or remembered for anything artistic after we're gone. There is just much too much, and many too many, of everything. Sappho at least had a few centuries of immortality before her poems fell out of favor. Apparently her trouble was she wrote in a difficult dialect of Greek called Aeolic. Aeschylus, it is said, wrote ninety plays of which seven have survived. Such a tidy impression of what is valuable. Today they both would be bloggers, in whatever dialect, checking weekly stats and hoping for a comment.

Still. Seven out of ninety. Printing presses still run and libraries still operate. So it's still fun to wonder what some future editor of your Omnibus edition might choose as your best, or what might survive simply because it was popular. I can give my biographers a head start and tell them freely that I have a horrifying suspicion my literary reputation may one day rest on an article I wrote elsewhere, four years ago, about Pond's cold cream. Seriously. Nothing else I have ever written, certainly not in proper and dignified magazines, has garnered forty-two, forty-two comments. I think it was Flannery O'Connor who said that a writer can choose what to write, but not what he will make come alive. To think that in my case it was not Prometheus Bound or the Hymn to Aphrodite but cold cream. Gad.

I import the article here for its own sake -- why should you dear things be deprived? -- and because at the end, it includes a sort of recipe. There's beeswax involved, which is why I also import the photo of the bee. We'll have to break the original post into installments, since it is long. Here is part one: My Pond's Cold Cream Saga. In the week or so that we'll take to read it, we'll have time to go out and buy more beeswax.

James Boswell once fretted to Samuel Johnson about whether or not he should think of wasting his time reading or writing on some small topic he had in mind. Johnson said, "there can be nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we have as little misery and as much happiness as possible."

I hope that is true, because amid all the awful and serious news in the world, I do have a small subject that frets and interests me. Everyone must promise not to laugh, or be disgusted.

Wonderful Pond's cold cream has lost its wonderful old scent, and now smells like just nothing at all. Chemicals, perhaps, or some kind of locker-room hygienic cream.

Really. That's what is on my mind, as all the micro-blogging platforms ask. What have they done to it? It used to have a fragrance that, now, I'm afraid I can't remember well enough to describe. It was very fresh, flowery but not fussy, a little powdery, fruity but not in the typical melon-and-cucumber style that any cosmetics company can do well and then call pear or kiwi anyway. It was unique.

And now it's gone. I'm sure they have changed the formula, because ever since I noticed the loss well over a year ago, I have continued to buy the product in small sizes and large, in grocery stores and drugstores, reasoning that perhaps that store got a bad shipment, or this one's supply is old and faded. Alas, each jar is now the same. Even my family agree, when I thrust the jar under their noses and demand their opinion that I'm not crazy, that classic Pond's doesn't smell as strong as it once did. The problem has to lie in the factory, and in the decisions made by the nice chemists there. It's become scentless and dull, and even the creamy feel of the stuff is different. I used to be able to catch up a dollop of it on a fingertip, and it sat there white, cool, plump, and perfect, crowned with a little gay curl on top. Now it is thin, greasy, and tacky. I plunge my fingertip into the jar and I pull away nothing. I have to dig into it with some fierceness, and do my best with a clump instead of a dollop.

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