**The Summer of The Winter of Our Discontent**
There’s this key moment in Sudoku, when you find a clutch number that gives way to the others and begin to just fall into place like a waterfall. Much like the card you play in solitaire where you know you’re about to crack it. I had just written in a 6 I’d been trying to find for way too long. So began the waterfall, and I filled in the other boxes proudly– possibly smugly because this puzzle felt like it was out to trick me personally and now I had it in my hands! Until I didn’t, and in slow motion realized I had two number 7’s in the bottom row, and I just wanted to hit myself.
I tried to work backwards to fix it, but it was irreparably blown. I blew it. So, there went the last two weeks.
Of course, I’ve been up to other things. It’d be funny if after a month break all I had to show for it was a failed puzzle. Can’t all be winners.
For starters, summer reading. In July I was booklets after finishing Killing Commendatore, and sad I didn’t have more Murikami to lose myself in. Finally I scanned my own bookshelf for unread potential treasures and picked up Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, which doesn’t sound like much of an apropos Summer read, but it’s just that. It’d sat idle on my shelf for years, even though that white house on the cover had caught my eye a thousand times. I had no idea the brilliance I was missing! It’s like suddenly realizing an old painting in your closet is worth some absurd amount of money. Once I dove in I didn’t want out, which surprised me when it shouldn’t have. It’s a classic, what did I expect?
The book was written in 1961, and given the passage of time I expected a natural disconnect. I’ve been so wrapped up in modern fiction– for too long probably. Yet somehow the America and the People and Assumed Human Decency that Steinbeck depicted 60 years ago were all completely recognizable today. You wouldn’t have to drive long before finding a sister town to “New Baytown”or look very hard before confronting modern replicas of his primary characters. Ultimately he tapped into the problems, desires, personal demons and moral choices most all of us face at some point– it’s just astounding to me that Steinbeck unearthed such deep, quiet struggles and could discern which ones were engrained in us and would stand the test of time.
Maybe that’s a litmus test for what makes a book a classic; if the suppositions and ideas can weather the decades and remain solidly true, unbothered by time, then you’ve got yourself a winner. I guess that’s pretty obvious, but it felt remarkable to come across.
The book reads a lot like a memoir of protagonist Ethan Crawley, who is so likable, in the first place, it’s hard to put down. I felt a relief knowing there was someone else who felt these ways –about money and politics and social hierarchies and expectations. He makes a joke out of probably 85% of his replies, and rarely does anyone get it, or choose to acknowledge it with a laugh anyway. That felt… familiar.
I feel similarly when I watch SNL sketches that crack me up. It’s not in the scene itself, but in the imagining of the writers who wrote the sketch, and knowing that real people out there recognized absurdity the way that I do. It’s easy not to feel seen in the world, but knowing other people see things the same way you do, even perfect strangers, feels like the twin brother to feeling understood. One scene in the book hammered this feeling in…
Crawley and his wife have been invited to another couples house to discuss “business”, i.e. money, but they have to go through the obligatory song and dance first. That means a formal serving of tea and then petty small talk. Everyone sipped tea and each delivered some anecdote on the subject of tea. He’s bored to tears. When it became Ethan’s turn to chime in, he brought up Danny, the town drunk, and a terrible nightmare he’d had about him. I laughed as he described feeling his wife’s quiet anger that he didn’t keep up the supposedly pleasant tea talk, and now everyone had to comment about a despairing subject. I wonder how many pleasant bouts of small talk I’ve Debbie Downer’ed with an some morbid comment that I found funny? Probably too many. Anyway, it’s a perfect scene.
A few of my favorite passages:
“So many old and lovely things are stored in the worlds attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.”
I don’t suppose there’s a man in the world who doesn’t love to give advice.”
(Ethan)”Is Marullo part of the group?”
(Wealthy friend) “Certainly not. He goes his own way with his own crowd.” (The Italians. Marullo is an immigrant)
(Ethan)“They do pretty well, don’t they?”
(Friend) “Better than I think is healthy. I don’t like to see these foreigners creeping in.”
Sounds familiar eh?
“There is no such thing as just enough money. Only two measures: No Money and Not Enough Money.”
“No one wants advice–only corroboration.”
“I always put it down to fact that a wife never likes her husband’s boss or his secretary.” “All men are moral. Only their neighbors are not.” “Not only the brave get killed, but the brave have a better chance at it.” “For the most part people are not curious, except about themselves.”
I must have underlined half the book.
Next I read Hemingways The Sun Also Rises, another of the greats that’d been collecting dust not far from Steinbeck. When finishing it I wondered why I haven’t read more of the classics, because this was a damn great book too. There’s no good reason I don’t have more of them under my belt, except that I didn’t take enough literature classes in college I guess, and I hardly know what the real classics are. So, I’ve begun a list. Who cares. Anyway I won’t go so far into this one. As tribute to Hemingway and his distinguished, succinct style I’ll say this: The book is rather great and you should read it. You’ll have a swell time.
Especially if you love Paris, Spain, the Pamplona Fiesta, fishing, Bullfighting, and forbidden love. Hemingway was clearly a romantic. Did you know he was married four times? Only a true romantic gives marriage that many goes.
The passage that stuck:
“I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on. …You paid some way for everything that was any good.”
If that’s not the truth I don’t know what is.
I kept thinking about it’s application to health. That very often, when you have your health, it’s free. They say your health is like your breath–you don’t pay attention to it until you lose it. I think back on life before the relapse, and how I’d done nothing to earn my state of ‘decent’ state of health. I’d also done nothing to earn the relapse that eventually followed. It felt like someone at my door, come to collect a bill every day, when I hadn’t purchased anything. When well, I was getting something for nothing, without even knowing it. Once sick I had to begin paying for those somethings, and surrender what I couldn’t afford.
My hope, and I think my belief, is that it doesn’t have to mean the surrender of those things that matter most. When you’re forced to give things up, it feels just that way. But learning to live without them has been an ongoing lesson in letting go of what I thought I needed in order to live a life I liked. You end up finding a whole other you behind those old roles. It offered a strange opportunity to see my own self without these external identifiers. That allowed me to see the world differently too. I’m (still) learning it’s up to me, more often than not, how I choose to see both.
But, as the man said, you paid for anything that was any good. Many things that allow me to feel alive and good come at a cost. It’s like a tax on fun, in the currency of health. Actually I also pay the tax when I haven’t had fun. REAL COOL BODY THANKS. At any rate, I feel fortunate I still have people and places and experiences to (sometimes) overindulge in at all.
Like him. He’s worth it.
I imagine everyone has their respective “things” or indulgences for which a bill reliably comes. And maybe depending on what point we’re asked, during the playing or the paying, would we consider whether or not the juice was worth the squeeze. For me, mostly, paying the bill feels worth it when I’ve decided to splurge. Girls gotta live sometimes.
Health, Happiness, Paying the Tab