Feeling Strangely Defined

Have you precariously attained relevance today?

“I once heard Susan Sontag, in conversation with Umberto Eco, define the polymath as one ‘who is interested in everything, and in nothing else.’”

—Christopher Hitchens, reviewing Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia in the Atlantic, April 2007

I don’t like to brag, but I once heard Paul Magers, in conversation with me, define tax-increment financing as “important legislative mumbo-jumbo.” He said it with a chuckle, with that indescribable air he always had about him—as if the soul of Cary Grant had selected its eternal reward, and that reward was to deliver local news in a Silvio Dante suit. I laughed appreciatively, of course, as did Diana Pierce, who was also there at the time. Some might contend that she was more there than I was, since she happened to be sitting right next to him and I was watching at home. No matter; as Paul segued deftly into the next story, which profiled a Minnesota mom/soldier gearing up for service in Iraq, I felt that uncanny sense of inclusion whose bestowal was Paul’s special gift.

Again, not to toot my own horn, but I get around. For instance, I know a guy who once heard Rudy Perpich, in conversation with Muriel Humphrey at a DFL bean feed, describe the daily life of a public servant as “kind of like trying to place a stainless-steel crown in the mouth of an old man who doesn’t want to have to pay for it.” Then, while Hubert Humphrey peppily held forth about Nixon and Vietnam, Rudy spent three hours enlightening Muriel about the history, science, and finer aesthetic points of dentistry: crowns, bridges, partial plates. My buddy says she later defined niceness as the bane of her existence.

I often heard Whoopee John Wilfahrt, in conversation with an audience in New Ulm, define polka as “what angels hum when they’re happy—and they’re always happy.” Okay, I’m not quite old enough to have had the Whoopee John experience in person, but my great-uncle Nils had an amateur recording of the show on a wax cylinder. Nils had lost two toes and several friends in World War I, and when he’d get to missing them he would overindulge in his fondness for Fleck’s Cave Aged Beer and then insist that we kids keep him company while he listened to his music.

I recently heard Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, in conversation with the hand model who was poking him in the gut, define existence as “no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.” After pausing to emit his trademark giggle, he added, “And all the dough conditioners in the world can’t help you.” Then I woke up and realized that the yeasty little scamp had ripped off his definition from Susan Sontag, whose works Christopher Hitchens had just turned me on to. After falling back to sleep, I dreamed about Owatonna-born actor E. G. Marshall, star of such film classics as The Caine Mutiny, 12 Angry Men, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. In my dream, Paul Magers was doing the news, only he looked exactly like Elvis Presley, circa 1968—black leather jacket, sideburns, lip curl, the whole bit. As Paul/Elvis read a story about tainted pet food, Marshall burst onto the set dressed as General Eisenhower (whom he played in a celebrated TV miniseries) and shot Paul/Elvis three times with a nickel-plated revolver. Standing over the dying corpse, E.G. sneered, “Who’s all shook up now, pretty boy?”

In the summer of 1970, I heard Mel Pfenster, in conversation with a dozen or so teenagers who were reclining on his lawn, define the hippie as “a half-naked moron who doesn’t give a damn about anything.” Mr. Pfenster, a neighbor of ours, was a proud veteran of the Korean War; he was also my Scout-master. The teens had come to our neck of the woods because someone was staging a Woodstock knockoff on an abandoned farm at the end of the road. Mr. Pfenster had a lovely, mini-arboretum of a yard, with very cushy grass, and the kids—decked out in enormous bell-bottoms, the boys shirtless, the girls in halter tops—were sprawled all over it. To me they were godlike beings who had mastered the existential art of grooving on nature, peace, and music; to him they were doped-up sex fiends. After a lot of red-faced screaming, he rousted them from his property and they sauntered off toward the farm, laughing and giving him the finger. His parting shot was a real zinger: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” I remember thinking something along the lines of Wow, Mr. Pfenster is kind of a sad old coot, isn’t he?

A few days ago, I heard myself, in a one-sided conversation with my son, describe the fellow who had just veered into my lane—a young gent with a cell phone in one hand and a Starbucks cup in the other, who was steering his chrome-yellow Hummer down I-94 with his knees—as “an asshole who apparently doesn’t know there’s a war on.”

My son looked up from his Game Boy. “You used the A-word,” he observed helpfully. Then he went back to the hand-held video war he was engaged in, and I stewed in my sad old cootness for a few tenths of a mile. Then we approached a railroad overpass, and life gave me the finger.

For an instant, I saw an image, framed by the edges of the windshield, that could have been an ancient Japanese watercolor. The sky (it was very early in the morning, thinly overcast, and we were heading east) seemed both foreground and background, damp and full of almost-colors: gold, silver, slate, umber, rose. The black-iron bridge cut diagonally across the lower left of the scene, and in the upper right there were three birds—grackles, maybe—hovering in a beautifully balanced triangular configuration, wings outspread but motionless, surfing a stiff gust of wind before darting off to a part of town with cleaner air. But before they left, I distinctly heard one of them, in conversation with the other two, define me as a “middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American chump who thinks that because he isn’t driving a faux-military SUV he’s saving the planet.” The other two birds grackled in raucous agreement. “Here’s a guy,” the first bird went on, “who doesn’t know squat about Japanese art, treating himself to a little aesthetic epiphany when he should be keeping his eyes on the road. Here’s a character who’s whipping through an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future at 70 miles an hour, and he’d rather pick an imaginary fight with the sap in the next car than reflect upon the burgeoning soul of his kid. Here’s a guy who thinks he hates war, but—”

The wind and the flow of traffic swept the birds up and away. I caught a glimpse of them in the side mirror, swinging west over the thousands of cars lined up behind mine, and I heard one define breakfast as “a helluva good idea.”

“Let’s hit Old Man Pfenster’s,” said another. “He always puts out fresh corn.”

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson likes to read Susan Sontag while listening to his favorite Whoopee John tunes: “Prune Dumpling Polka,” “Goose Pimples Waltz,” and “When the Sun Comes Over the Brewery.”