I’m making broken lines in cool spring grass, cutting across a churchyard one morning toward what I hope will be a temporary job, when it occurs to me that I’m pretty well dressed. Sort of urban office casual, loose wool tie and khakis, holding a scroll of papers. Somebody might guess I’m an architect. A few more steps and I’m getting used to the idea. An architect, definitely. A few more and I notice my fly is open, and better still my white shirt corner hangs out a good three inches. It felt like the time in college when I was ambling across campus between classes, began to jog and tripped over a curb. It happened so fast I barely got my hands out: one moment practicing my insouciant walk, the next sprawled on the street covered with loose-leaf paper and Bic pens.
I’m hitting to a par-3 from an elevated tee in Roanoke while the party in front of us, held up by the next foursome, watches from behind the green. I absolutely pure the iron, roll it to three feet, and as we drive up an old guy in a cart, stubbing out his cigarette, says “Y’always stick ‘at post like ‘at?” Translated from Southwest Virginian: “And would that be your usual game?” I mumble something modest, just about scuff the dirt with my toe, and then muff the short putt, and another, answering his question.
Small comedowns, true, but maybe worth thinking about even after you’ve told them over a beer. Naturally the funniest falls happen to other people, but in the end it’s really about perception, which is purely yours. Falls happen only to the self-aware. If you can’t view yourself from a distance you’re a soap bubble, a Wile E. Coyote who never looks down. Delusions only exist in the act of vanishing.
At such moments self-consciousness can seem like a perverse penalty for being human. I think it’s also a gift, though, perhaps especially when the joke’s on you. Like many things in life this makes no sense but is probably true.
God almighty that driver’s short, I can’t even see the fringe of his head. Shouldn’t there be a line on the DMV wall, like at carnival rides? Of course it’s a jacked-up monster with dark windows; why does every car have to look like a spaceship now? At the exact moment I realize there’s no one in the car—it’s being towed—I feel a quick mental shift like a rug pulled out. It’s odd but not unpleasant. My windshield seems cleaner. I’m paying attention.
When I was a kid, many nights going to sleep I could hear our washing machine through the floor from downstairs, the soft lub-swish in the pillow a comforting companion as I drifted off. When I realized years later what it actually was—my own heartbeat in my ear—I was stunned. A tiny reliable piece of the world had stepped out of the mirror, winked and strolled away. It’s a moment I return to sometimes when it gets quiet enough to hear that sound again.
I’ve come to think of this sort of strangeness as something to welcome. Every weekday morning I step from the shower into a dark room with a glowing clock face that reads 6:04. I’m not aware of timing myself, but it never changes. Some days this is comforting (all’s right with the world), other days dispiriting (I’m a robot). I wonder what would throw a wrench in the works, turn the morning into a Simpsons sequence. The wrong person in bed? Furniture stacked, a crater in the floor? Even shaving in a different pattern might kick it up a bit.
But who has time for any of that? Our lives are busy enough. And yet, exactly. If you don’t notice time’s arrow—the tight smooth grain, shaft twisting, sun climbing the feathers—it’s already past you. And that sun does go down. I don’t think it’s a choice of big or little changes, either. If you want to reinvent your life, you first need to be able to see it. One way to do that is to get in the habit of getting out of them.
Whatever else mistakes do, they make living memorable, and this is as true of minor buffoonery as of more serious errors. A girl I knew thirty years ago tried to ask a man on a French train if it would be all right to shut the curtains, and instead asked him "Do you hope that I close your clothes?" Another inquired of an elderly gentleman "Have you seen my friend?" but, missing on both verb and noun, asked "Do you want my love?" Lost with a friend in Italy, I once leaned out a train window and announced that we were arriving in Uscita, which prompted an ancient woman dressed in black, who had sat so still the entire trip that she might have been embalmed, to begin shaking. Uscita, as it happens, means “exit.”
Bigger mistakes, and exits, need recalling too. When I was young I didn’t think memory was everything—I didn’t really think about it at all. But I’ve watched people I love lose theirs, and now I think that even those days you’d never want to live again are better saved. It’s like phantom limb pain, but you need to remember lying in bed as dawn approaches, waiting for someone you love to wake up so you can tell her it’s over.
As a graduate student about to become something else, I thought most literary theory sounded smart and edgy, rather than pompous and turgid. The turning point was lunch with an old professor of mine from the days when literature meant novels. He asked about my dissertation, and in the midst of my yammering I told him it still needed some theoretical underpinning. He stopped stirring his soup, looked at me for a beat, and with no particular expression said "Theoretical underpinning." I glossed it and went on, but that was the needle that pricked what was left of my graduate-school balloon.
One thing that’s stayed with me from those days is the Scrabble death word ostranenie. Pronounced correctly it has a little schoolyard nyah-nyah at the end, and it means “defamiliarization” or—the one I prefer—“making strange.” A Russian named Viktor Shklovsky came up with it in 1917 to talk about art and its power to refresh our perspective. “We no more feel the world in which we live than we feel the clothes we wear,” he said. “We look one another in the face but do not see each other.” Real art, Shklovsky thought, undoes that. It wipes our eyes and makes our skin tingle, shakes off what Richard Dawkins calls the “sedative of ordinariness.” Turns out there’s even a magazine called Ostranenie, wonderfully enough, although it seems to me the pages ought to be trapezoidal, or full of live goldfish.
In an early John Cheever story, Shklovsky’s art lands like a punch to the gut. Two unnaturally close brothers vie for a girl and then separate for the first time ever, an act that shifts the earth under their feet. One looks at the familiar road home and decides “no road of Europe or any other country could have seemed stranger.” The other sees hills and trees “as if he had never seen them before … looking around him like a stranger at the new, strange, vivid world.” Stripping away the familiar can feel like tearing off a bandage, but it can remake the world. Think of the first time you looked out an airplane window. Imagine what the first astronauts felt.
“Seem what you would be,” wrote Wallace Stevens: Fake it ‘til you make it, 30’s style. Stevens was an insurance executive, and absolutely no one at the Hartford Company guessed that buttoned up behind his desk sat one of America’s greatest poets. I sometimes wonder if Stevens felt foolish about his bottom-drawer manuscripts and rejection letters, or if he always knew he was more than deductibles and annuities. It makes me think maybe missteps are the only ones we can feel.
About the author:
David Raney is a writer and editor in Atlanta whose scribbles have shown up in about two dozen magazines, journals and books. His wife, kids and rhinoceros-sized labrador think he's terrific, and he seeks no higher praise.