Monday, May 4, 2009
Cognitive Decline, parts 1 and 2
Perhaps my longest-term client, other than a former employer of mine who has used me as a freelancer since I went freelance, is a syndicated newspaper columnist. Per has been an editor and a writer since before I was born and is rather esteemed within per's own geographic niche. Suffice it to say that when you've been doing something for 50-something years you're (a) pretty good at it and (b) probably pretty well respected as a result. I think of Count Basie who, when asked about perfection, said something along the lines of, "Find something you like to do, do it well, and keep doing it for about 70 years." I guess he was talking about himself, the master of the well-timed, sparse note.
Sidetrack: Back in my younger days, I was ridiculously shy around females. I used to blame that on being educated at a boys' school for 8 years, but the problems were elsewhere -- like in the mirror and inside my own head. It took me many years to stop blaming my parents' choice of school for me for my own social backwardness. Anyway, when I was in college, the Count Basie Orchestra -- with Count Basie -- was playing at a high school about a block from my college. Ohmygod. For like six bucks. This says as much about the lack of appreciation for jazz in the late 1970s as anything else. So I get up the nerve -- and trust me, it was virtually impossible for me to do -- to ask this really cute girl in my philosophy class if she wanted to go with me to see Count Basie. I'm not sure she even knew who Count Basie was, or how amazing it was that he was going to be within walking distance of the school. She didn't give me an answer right then, but the next time the class met, I followed up and asked her if she'd decided, and she said, "No, thanks." No explanation, no apology. Needless to say, this response did not do much for my already long-cratered self-esteem. Well, I went anyway (alone), enjoyed myself, and she ended up dating the head of the college's Young Republicans chapter. Maybe she knew something I didn't.
Back to the story. So, this columnist loves it when I tear up per's work. This is what the good writer-editor relationship is about, class. Per used to give me a hard time if I went too long without essentially rewriting one of per's columns. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I told per I didn't like the column per had written. Per suggested I write one. So I did. Per submitted it to the syndicate (about 100 papers, I believe), saying that "I wrote a column for this occasion, but my editor Bob Land didn't like it. So here's what he wrote instead." That was the beginning of the column. And thus it was that I am on record during the week around 9/11/2002 essentially stating that, "Hey, guess what, folks? We're probably not going to change as a nation as a result of last year's events. We're going to end up being the same self-centered, self-absorbed jerks that we've always been. And besides that, not everyone who was killed on 9/11 was a saint. Just by the law of averages, there were probably wife beaters and child molesters among the 3,000 dead who we might as well be better off without." Per got more than a few positive reponses to that column. If per ever got any negative responses, they didn't find their way to me.
Am I back to the story yet? So, I've torn into the last three or four of per's columns pretty drastically. I receive a (very rare) call from per this morning, with per asking me very sincerely if I think per's lost the cognitive ability to continue working. Per's got some health issues, lost a spouse within the last few years, etc. Per's asking me if per still has what it takes? Who the hell am I to judge? Per's got more chops than I'd ever know what to do with. But per also respects the value of an editor who will wield a heavy hand when necessary, and per said, "If you think I can't do this anymore, let me know. I don't want to go out after my time has passed. I realize I'm not going out at my peak, but I don't want to be doing this too long either." I was humbled and honored and amazed and saddened and felt a little bit lost after the conversation. I guess I still feel that way.
Cognitive decline, part 2: My own. I've gotten into this thing lately that many days, when I wake up in the morning, if I lie in bed a little while -- not even in a half-asleep state, but pretty much awake -- I start having literal visions of the manuscript I'm working on, but the words are all wrong. The topic is right, but there are all kinds of problems with the book that don't necessarily exist in real life (that is, in the bunker, where the manuscript is residing). The words are a jumble, the language is wrong, it goes off track repeatedly. Needless to say, this doesn't provide me with any extra restful moments, so all there is to do is go downstairs and get back to work.
This hasn't happened once or twice, class. It's, like, dozens of times now. I don't know what it means, but if I had to put it into the good or bad side of the ledger, umm, I'm thinkin' bad.