Monday, October 29, 2007

Sweet Old Bob

Dear Hearts and Gentle People,
It is essay & letter time again. All our time and effort and energy have been devoted to moving out of one house and into another the last few weeks, and to that I attribute my lack of focus. I ended up writing about the book I’ve been reading. Oh well.
Still, I hope you enjoy this modest offering.
We are gradually settling in here at Casa Tuel Nuevo. Day by day I uncover more floor space. I throw things away, and give things away, and move things around, and then it’s time for lunch and after that I start over. The process of going through each box, and looking at each scrap of paper in each box, is as slow and tedious as I expected and it sounds, but I’m getting on with it. Some days I think, “I need a break,” and go crazy and drive up to town and pick up the mail at the P O boxes. Woo hoo. Oh, and Reva, your toilet brush has made it into the trunk of my car and I will bring it by one day this week, I promise.
Yesterday my childhood pen pal, Judy, came by for a visit. Our correspondence began when we were both about ten years old, which would be, oh gee, almost 50 years ago. Yesterday was the first time we met face to face. Wow. She and her husband Mark (who is in Seattle for a business conference) came out and we did a walking tour of greater downtown Vashon and then came down to the house. They are lovely, down-to-earth people, and it was great to meet in person after all these years. Hope you had a good flight home, Judy, and that you get a little sleep tonight!
Sad news: Cathie Fisher, who was the organist at our church for about seven years, passed on last Saturday morning. Cancer. She was younger than I am and this was one of those, “God, this just isn’t fair,” situations. There will be a memorial for Cathie at our church at some as yet undetermined date. You can email Church of the Holy Spirit for that information at:
OK, back to work. Wishing all of you a Happy Halloween and a Blessed All Saints’ Day ~
Blessings, love, peace & grace to you

Sweet Old Bob

I’ve been reading Robert Benchley’s book, Love Conquers All (©1922 by Henry Holt and Company, and re-issued in paperback by the Akadine Press in 1999). I would like to thank whoever gave this book to whichever thrift store in which I found it.
Reading a piece by Robert Benchley is, for me as a column-writer, like listening to Malvina Reynolds’ songs as a songwriter. The works of either one make me think, “What’s the point? They did it so much better than I could ever hope to do it.”
They did, too, but I keep writing all the same. The reasons I don’t give up trying to write columns and songs are simple: (1.) I’m alive. My idols, Benchley and Reynolds, are not; and (2.) They wrote for their time, I write for mine.
During a week like this, when inspiration has blithely passed me by (inspiration thinks it’s a real joker), I read Robert Benchley and think, oh, it would be easier to call in sick and re-print one of his pieces. People would enjoy it, and I wouldn’t be stuck here trying to beat a column out of a brain which has hung up the “closed” sign.
Unfortunately, the heirs and assigns of Mr. Benchley still have the copyrights to his works, and I can’t grab a column and paste it in here. Too bad. You’d enjoy Benchley.
He wrote things like “How to Watch a Bridge Game” back in the 1920s. It isn’t really about bridge, of course, or watching. It’s about how cluelessly annoying people with nothing to do can be to people who do have something to do. Bridge may have passed its heyday, but annoying people and being annoyed never seem to go out of style.
Benchley’s gentle albeit barbed whimsy may be out of style also. It’s hard to be gently barbed when you’re contemplating the recent sanctions imposed upon Iran, and the further erosion of everyone’s civil rights in America. Nothing gentle or whimsical about either of those topics.
But he tackled tough topics with not a small bit of acerbic irony. He reviewed Darkwater, a book by W. E. B. Du Bois. That is the specific piece I wish I could reprint here, but I cannot. It is razor-sharp. I will take a chance by quoting this much: “Justice in the abstract is our aim – any American will tell you that – so why haggle over details and insist on justice for the negro?”
For all politically correct people who have lost sight of the fact that substance really is more important than form, I point out that this was written in or before 1922, at which time “negro” was the correct and polite term for what we were calling “African-American” the last time I looked. Please forgive me if that is not current. I don’t get out much. All I know is that racism is the cancer that rots America at the core, however you want to say it, and I believe that is the salient point.
Racism, war, the loss of our civil rights – these are not things I can write about with gentle whimsy. I wish I could channel Sweet Old Bob.
“My friends call me SOB,” Benchley said. “It stands for ‘Sweet Old Bob.’ They see me coming and say, ‘There’s that SOB.’”
I wonder what he would say about the current state of the world, the country, and the human race. I know it would be great. I wish I could say it myself, but we moved house a couple of weeks ago, and I have been sick, and to these things I attribute my brain’s total lack of cooperation with the writing process. Better luck next issue, kids. Meanwhile, you might try laying your hands on something by Robert Benchley. Trivia answer to question you didn’t ask: yes, it was Robert Benchley’s son, Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws, and there wasn’t a teaspoon of whimsy in that.

Further notes: Rob Lopresti, Bellingham-based author (Such a Killing Crime), songwriter, and librarian, writes:
”If it's any comfort, back in the thirties when James Thurber and EB White shared an office at the New Yorker, one would finish a piece, hand it to the other and ask "Did Benchley already do this?" So that problem has been around a long time.”
You can read all about Rob, his book, his CD, his blog & MORE at:

1 comment:

Scarlet said...

People should read this.