More or Less

“An eel of panic wriggles through him as he searches the room for exits, but life has no exits.” Andrew Sean Greer

“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad,” of course I’m fortunate enough to be overlooking a morbidly calm lake, with low hanging fog that hovers as if an old man’s genitals over the precipitous surface of Mt. Konocti, my devoted dog rests silently by my slippered feet, but as Hemingway claims, “there is no friend as loyal as a book.”

Larry’s talking shop on a conference call at the “game table” set cattywampus to the long green couch. How appropriate. I try and turn a deaf ear to the endless chatter, the lexicon as foreign as a German vending machine featuring premier cheeses, the only term I recognize is CD. I thought those were confined to museums, but what do I know?

Ann Patchett recommends this book, Less, with her whole heart, and it’s not just that Ann bears my late Mother’s name, it’s Ann Patchett. I’d read the Three Little Pigs if she recommended it. So here, “I sit for hours doing nothing,” as my amour likes to observe, reading this book, with words spun together as if cotton candy, I pluck them off the page in bite-size chunks, letting them linger on my tongue.

Andrew Sean Greer is not only a Pulitzer Prize recipient (“not Pew-lit-sir, but Pull-it-sir”),” he is raising the curtain on our shared human comedy,” so it says on the back cover. Come along with me as I stowaway with Arthur Less on this impromptu excursion, emotional acuity our souvenir du jour, as Greer allows unrivaled access to Less’s innermost thoughts, and to my endless delight, I find myself lost in the “dog-eared pages” of this extraordinary novel.

I fell in love with the main character, Arthur Less, on page one, chronicled by “his slim shadow, in fact, that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolored beautifully until they match the trees.” I mean, who writes like that?

Less says of his lover, “Freddy Pelu is a man who doesn’t need to be told, before take-off, to secure his own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Brilliant, eerily familiar, and this sets the stage for a searing adventure.

Here I sit with the filtered light streaming in from the wall of windows across the room, highlighting my aged hands on the dusty keyboard, I realize this book has me thinking about my own pesky decisions, how the bad ones rise to the surface as if ice cubes in a well made Vieux Carre; the time I revealed a long-held secret after too much champagne, or that striped jumpsuit I had to have because it screamed who I wanted to be, nier we forget the time I decided to wallpaper the dining room with such a disastrous schizophrenic pattern my dinner guests actually got nauseous before they finished their salad. It was so bad my father-in-law offered to pay to have it removed.

But there is one decision as Less proclaims, “whatever self chose it I love,” because as both Less and I have come to realize, our decisions can be life-changing.

I made mine when I was “faded like the sofa in the living room,” I threw caution to the wind, took a leap of faith, and attempted to procure a graduate degree late in life, exchanging my worn recliner for that of a wooden school desk, sized for someone two decades younger.

I squeezed myself in, as did Arthur Less with relationships, invitations, and literary acclaim.

Our beloved Less has a blue suit, and claims “without the suit there is no Arthur Less.” I feel much the same, without that paper, stashed in the oak desk banished to the guest room, there is no Cheryl.

Freddy Pelu says when asked why he became a high school teacher, “I think it’s mostly that I don’t like people my age,” and I had to sit there for a while recovering from the enormity of this truth that just slapped me across the face. It doesn’t sting as much as you would think?

“By his forties, all he has managed to grow was a gentle sense of himself, akin to the transparent carapace of a soft-shelled crab…which can pierce his thin hide and bring out the same shade of blood as ever.” Less’s sensitivities have thinned with age, his armor long since abandoned, he’s easily bruised by vitriolic individuals, and this I believe this is why he is so easy to love, his vulnerability reminds us of our own.

Less and I both worry it’s over, not our lives, but our ability to have an impact. Do you know what I mean? I’ve done nothing significant, nothing with gravity, nothing to add to the betterment of society. Could this be a universal fear? Or is just living enough, being good to the dog, raising the kids, decorating the coffee table with attractive vintage pieces, offering my aging body to my partner in the dark, my appeal flattening out as if a pancake on a grill someone forgot to flip?

It’s taken a year of sheltering in place for me to understand these poignant words, “after all these years, Less doesn’t even know where he’s stored,” as I weed through decades of paraphernalia, I find parts of myself embedded in the characterization of things, the ceramic lady from Spain sequestered to a crowded bookcase, the picture of my late brother-in-law showing off his last big catch, the sterling silver buried so deep in a cupboard after my mother’s death it took two years to find, the baptismal gown hand-sewed by my Aunt now worn by my children’s children, the dress with rose ribbons Larry gifted me on my sixteenth birthday, the vases, the tokens, the books…to simplify means ridding me of myself.

Less doesn’t lose himself in things, he’s a man, he does this with his relationships, which I believe is the only way to clearly see oneself, through the eyes of another.

Do we aspire to be forever young, “or do we do the opposite – forswear all that, and let your hair go gray, and wear elegant sweaters that cover your belly, and smile on past pleasures that will never come again?” The truth is I no longer want to rollerblade from San Francisco Park to the beach, or camp along the Russian River in a worn sleeping bag, and I will never again be spotted running through the neighborhood in a sports bra and shorts, those memories only serve to warm me like a fuzzy blanket in the winter of my life.

As Less says, “nothing to do but laugh about it. True for everything.”

I’m beginning to think by some queer circumstance that Arthur Less and I are twins born exactly a decade apart. It’s as if his words were torn from my addled brain, I feel exposed as you do in dreams when you can’t find your clothes, caught in this alternative universe, I spend the night trying “to exit a room while remaining inside it.” I do this at parties too.

I thought the endless chatter of my own insecurities were private, secrets held as if a pinkie promise between me and myself, but then I enter the private world of Arthur Less, “still in free fall from the broken bridge of his last hopes,” and I find myself reaching for that elusive baton, handed off in the endless race against time.

Larry and I have escaped to Lake County for a few days, I wanted to write, he to engage with the needs of an aging spouse house. The topography is dotted with charming vineyards and tasting rooms, and the applicability of this passage stopped me cold, “Less opens his eyes to a countryside of autumn vineyards, endless rows of the crucified plants, a pink rosebush always planted at the end.” See, the rosebush will succumb to disease before the vines, and after sitting with this thought for a moment I realize this is how it is to live without a mother, no one is able to warn you of impending doom, “like the canary in the cave.”

My faith is something I cling to, as if a rosary, the salvific beads passing nimbly through my fingers, but when life is spinning out of control, like Less, “it’s the work, the habit, the words, that fixes me. Nothing else can be depended on.”

Less claims of his observant lover, “that’s what it was like to live with genius,” hiding is impossible, as if a movie with subtitles, the truth scrolls across the bottom of the screen, and as it says in Hebrews chapter four, “nothing in all creation is hidden, everything is naked and exposed before the one to whom we are accountable.”

“I think there’s something between genius and mediocrity,” Less whines, Bahaha, no there’s not!

I wish it wasn’t so but I think we’ve all lived this idiom, “walking alone into the room…looking as soaked in misery as a trifle pudding soaked in rum.” These images both sweet and alluring have tantalized me time and again, “my tongue bruised with errors,” the purple contusion rising to the surface with the morning sun, leaning against the headboard of my rumbled bed, cringing at my impudence.

Less, like the repetitive word that racks the brain when an overindulgence has occurred, the double meaning all the more potent.

No one cares if I’m part of a contingent of large sweater-wearing women, or if my container qualifies as an antique, the point being – do I still have my wits about me? My twin Less says, “Robert has never been kind to his body; he’s worn it like an old leather coat tossed in oceans and left crumpled in corners, and Less saw its marks and scars and aches not as failures of age but the opposite: the evidence, as Raymond Chandler once wrote, of ‘a gaudy life.’ It is only the carrier of that wonderful mind, after all.”

Are you allowing this cotton candy to linger on your tongue?

“Life so often arrives all of a sudden. And who knows which side you will find yourself on?” I’ve always believed in my ability to absorb new information, but changing my mind is as if a guard at Buckingham Palace, it’s stoically replaced. I admit at times I avoid those hard conversations because I don’t want to let go of cherished ideas whose time has come. Things like happily ever after, morality, even my concept of sin, but as Less has found, “it is like pouring water from an old leaking bucket into a shining new one; it feels almost suspiciously easy.”

Sometime when the evening light is just right, after long steam in the shower, and my hair has followed my anxious ministrations, I feel as if, “the beauty of my youth, somehow taken from its winter storage, and given back to me in middle age.” It doesn’t need saying, by the end of the evening, as Cinderella can attest, middle-age has made its unwelcome return.

I’ve always wondered why I cling to words as if a besotted lover, twirling them over and over in my mind, smiling at the emotions they evoke. Now I know why…

Life is a sandbox that someone has kindly stocked with vowels, consonants, and punctuation marks. Straight away I set to work building my narrative, a philosophy if you will, only to have it washed away season after season. I could rebuild? Or should I man up so to speak, venture out of the box like Less, take up residence in a new adventure? As Hemingway warns, “when you start to live outside yourself, it’s all dangerous.”

“For are we not puppets of our own imagination,” Andrew Sean Greer.

I’m Living in the Gap, lost in the words of Andrew Sean Greer, as if an endless game of Candy Land, I can’t get out.

*All unattributed quotations are ascribed to Andrew Sean Greer.

*Vieux Carre, a cocktail, literal meaning old square ~ Bahaha

33 Comments

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  1. Okay, so now I’m worried.
    ‘Hovering as if an old man’s genitals’ makes me genuinly concerned that you have been watching me get in and out of the bath! I hope that no photographic evidence exists? 🙂 🙂

    I was relieved to know I have alway pronounced ‘Pulitzer’ correctly though.

    As for clinging onto words, I often like to say ‘Melifluous’ out loud. That’s a word to cling to.
    Great stuff, Cheryl!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bahaha, I blame the clouds Pete, they had a peculiar formation that morning, perhaps I have a wayward mind? No photo evidence rest assured!

      Love your sweet and pleasant word! Definitely one to cling to! Thanks for the kind words, C

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m having a vicarious thrill at you finding your words twin, Cheryl. That feeling of, “Oh my God, he’s saying it just as I feel it, and so beautifully, too!!” I know we can find ourselves mandated to feel all kinds of negative feelings about the things we’ve accumulated but if I was a betting woman I’d bet that almost every single one of them is a rich post in its own right. “The universe in a grain of sand”–the same’s likely true for that sterling silver collection and the ceramic lady from Spain. Thanks, Cheryl.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mary Ellen, I missed this comment, I was just running back though the post to listen to Joan Baez (love her) and found your comment sitting here unattended! I am always charmed by the way you dive into a post and come up with such alluring trinkets. You hold things up to the light that I never saw at first glance. I love that about you. And I believe you are right to note how our accumulated notions match up with many of our accumulations, each with it’s own story, and accessory lesson. Looking forward to next Wednesday Mary Ellen, all my best, C

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  3. You know I share your love of Arthur Less and Andrew Sean Greer, but this post should go viral. Sadly, I gave my annotated copy of Less to my very best friend, and she has no recollection of it. Like the book just disappeared. I think I’ll have to buy another copy. And as for Greer, I’m delighted with that. I’ll probably buy it for my friends, too. Even my best friend who lost the first one. Truly, Cheryl—gorgeous post, and I felt a little misty eyed (except perhaps not about the hovering of the old man’s genitals). Sending ❤️.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Crystal, I love that we have this shared adoration for Andrew! I can’t believe your best friend lost your annotations! I would love to know what gems you found in this novel. He is absolutely brilliant! I mean every page I have to stop and meditate on some new insight! Crazy. Absolutely grab up another copy, it’s a keeper. Thanks for your kind words, it means a lot to me, and sorry, not sorry about the old dudes genitals! Keeping it real, warmly, C

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  4. Beautifully written and thought provoking. I will most certainly read this book. I also agree that one of the best ways to see and understand ourselves is in what is mirrored back to us in relationship. 💗

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you LaDonna, your comments always make me pause and smile! I would love to hear your thoughts on this novel, the wisdom you squeeze out of the pages. It’s interesting to me how much I have learned from this writing community, although most of us have never met, they mirror much back to me! 💕C

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ll love this book, Diane! The author (my new BFF) is brilliant, as you weave your way through the story he drops these petals of wisdom for you to gather up and put in a vase. I thoroughly enjoyed the exotic locations and humorous anecdotes. Glad you enjoyed my “brilliant” imagery, I do what I can, with what I got! C

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  5. I will definitely add this book to my TBR list! I love the Joan Baez you added at the bottom- it’s the first song I heard by her because we were studying it for one of my classes and I ended up really loving her music.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay. . . Not being Federico Fellini, I’m not touching the “fog, the mountain, or the old man’s genitals” thing. That said, Wow. That was Deep Cheryl. I’m going to need to wade back to the shallow end of the ‘reflection pool’ to process all that. 😉

    Reading “I’ve done nothing significant, nothing with gravity, nothing to add to the betterment of society” touched me.
    Simple question: How do you know?

    How do you know if something you said, some kindness you shared, some seemingly simple act of decency you unknowingly committed such as smiling at someone in a public setting and saying a sincere “Good morning” 🌄 didn’t change their outlook and send them on a different path? How do you know that how you raised your children isn’t leaving a legacy of change in others that they will impact through the actions and kindness that you taught them?

    But to be frank, my guess is that your fear that there isn’t ‘someone’ out there that is better for you having existed is in fact completely true. Sorry to say that.

    I share that truth because I know that being who you are, that there are undoubtedly scores of people whom you have touched, and those moments led to changes that you or I could only do a disservice to guess at their actual impact: From students to parents of students, from classmates to friends, to family members, to co-workers, and yes, I’m guessing even a stranger or two, where your smile and pleasant greeting on an early morning walk on the Los Gatos Creek Trail, or gliding along in Lucerne didn’t change them for the better.

    Anyway, the girl I always see when I ‘see’ my neighbor Cheryl is this kind, sweet, thoughtful girl, and at just about that age when she was gifted that beautiful dress from her devoted KISA.
    That girl? She’s still there in the mirror. Next time you are alone in the bathroom, peer deeper into the looking glass. She’ll smile back, I promise. . . and probably from across the road where she’s carrying out her latest act of mercy and kindness because that’s who she is: the neighbor right there at the end of the parable shared in Luke 10, verses 36-37 😉

    CT

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    1. Okay, I agree, using an old man’s gentiles to image the way fog hangs off the steep side of a mountain was not the best choice of words, and I’m a writer? I recieved several messages that my decorum has shamelessly slipped? Who knew I had any? But it certainly fit with the theme of the book which involved an aging male who was questioning not only his status in life, but his value, and worth as a human. He was about to hit that dreaded marker in life ~ 50 ~ and he really wasn’t managing well!

      All the quotations were actually taken from the novel as I attempted to apply these lingustic jewels to my own delusions about life. I could relate to many of the nerotic voices Arthur Less was trying to manage and I got lost in the tumble. I had one friend ask if I needed an intervention? Bahaha.

      Although I readily admit to questioning the significance of my contributions in life, I’m inordinately aware that every one of us has enormous dignity and purpose.

      At this age many of our earlier decisions about lifestyle, relationships, and as you note from the Gospel of Luke, “the mercy we’ve shown our neighbors,” are now woven into the tapestry of our lives. Right? All that defeatist humor was me relating to the beloved Arthur Less, because this old girl is ever so pleased with how life has unfolded.

      Thanks so much for the gentle reminder how important it is that we appreciate our impact on others, lest we forget, and risk injuring the ones we love most. Warmly, C

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  7. Hi Cheryl!
    I enjoyed wrestling with this post. Beginning with the visual of the old man’s genitalia hanging down over Mt K, I was immediately reminded of work, and had to turn away. A few days later I took another crack at things. What a beautiful essay (except the opening imagery.) Your use of the book about Less is so well crafted. A wonderful tool to reflect upon life and how to view the aging process and the relentless march of time. I really can’t do your writing justice. The following prose is classic: “Or is just living enough, being good to the dog, raising the kids, decorating the coffee table with attractive vintage pieces, offering my aging body to my partner in the dark, my appeal flattening out as if a pancake on a grill someone forgot to flip?” It lulls you into complacency with a typical visual of a dullsville life marching to its inevitable conclusion, yet it rips you back into reality with a humorous take on sexuality amongst the aging with a humorous description of the realities of life. I had to laugh, after I choked. Worry not about your ability to still have an impact. I continue to look forward to your weekly writings (though I am impressed with how prolific you are)
    Totally love Hemingway, (Key West, site of his former abode, rocks) and always love it when you include a quote or two from him.
    I have a new appreciation for Joan Baez. Enjoyed the song and the video. Always knew she had a beautiful voice, both the lyrics and feel of that song are beautiful and poignant, expressing both the happiness and sadness of her memories. Did not know that she and Dylan had a relationship. Of course, the unopened video “No direction home” is sitting on my DVD shelf.
    In any event, totally loved this, with the remarkable exception of the Mt. K description.


    “The first one now, will later be last…..”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mike, always good to hear from you, eternally sorry for the reminder of work, this is strictly an entertainment blog! I suppose it’s a occupational hazard when your primary view from the office mimics the shape of fog? Or maybe your cousin just can’t get her mind out of the gutter? Either way so glad you gave it another peek so to speak.

      Greer’s writing is truly magical, I couldn’t keep up with my own notes. Every page is a source of absolute brilliance, as the main character wrestles with aging, defeat, nostalgia, being spurred by his long lost lover, he heads out on a haphazard adventure. The interesting thing is no matter the circumstance aging comes with consistent themes and concerns. I slipped into his line of thinking as if a beloved pair of slippers on a cold day. He totally had me.

      Because much of the novel is swaddled in insecurities and fear of aging, that’s exactly where I went, when a friend of mine sent me a text asking if I needed an intervention! Bahaha, I not only leaned into the topic, I may have fallen in, thank God I can swim.

      I too love Hemingway and he kept coming up as I was reading this novel, it’s as if Andrew Sean Greer is channeling his genius, or it is simply how his writing sounds to my ear.

      I included that particular song as Greer mentions it in the book, but unless you read the story you wouldn’t know that, but I too was brought back in time as I listened to this song several times.

      I’m thrilled you were able to see below the surface, as you’re trained to do, and enjoy the subtle textures and themes of his work.

      Larry and I got our first shots last week. We’ll get the second in a few weeks. Hoping we can look forward to a reunion soon. Miss you guys, I’m hankering to enjoy a nice Tempranillo with you and Gail in the near future! Love, Cheryl

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I had to come back and tell you I read “Less”. I wont spoil it for anyone here, but thank you for recommending it. It was a great read, that I couldn’t put down. The ending exceptional. Thank you for the introduction to Andrew Sean Greer and Author Less. I’ll remember its humorously framed lessons for a long while. 💗

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