Authors: Roy Blount
Not Exactly What I Had in Mind
(but not the title)
is for my boy Johnny B.,
who can hit
and also sympathize
Jokes are so diverse that no one man can see them all.
— Max Beerbohm
Alas, mankind has yet to invent a system of relationships more natural than money.
— Vassily Aksyonov
… and I’m an immaterial girl.
— Miss Liberty, just before
leaping into the harbor
and swimming off
F THE TITLE OF
this book strikes you as … picky, well, I know what you mean. I have half a mind to break down, plunge into the eighties, and write something heartier, called
Do you think I
being out of touch with American values? Not long ago I climbed up into the Statue of Liberty’s head. It felt good in there, and I thought rousing thoughts.
What a woman! Embosomer of Einstein, Garbo, and Jelly Roll Morton.
Jesse Helms. When her cornerstone was laid,
was at the printers. Not being Jesse Helms, I don’t presume to know exactly what she has in mind. But I have a hard time believing that America today is it.
And she undoubtedly
capitalism, within reason. So do I. Back before money went crazy, my daddy was president of the national organization of savings and loans. He bankrolled homes for a living. I aim to prosper in my own small business, trying to turn a dollar making unencumbered sense. In an ideal system, I’m afraid I would find myself writing for the common good, as determined by the kind of people who like to serve on committees.
Say somebody in a bow tie were to knock on my door and announce, “You don’t have to mess with the marketplace anymore! Just sign here and you get a stipend from the Universal League of Free Expression, renewable annually so long as you swear to operate only in terms of high purpose.” It would sound fishy to me. I don’t trust clean money. An American isn’t after a free ride, if he can help it. He wants to sail his own boat, which means getting a grip on the strings attached.
And that’s where an American is onto something fundamental. According to the
New York Times,
which has my implicit trust on anything to do with nature’s building blocks, scientists are beginning to believe that everything in the universe, including airplane food and Albania, is made of strings. Here are the details of this hypothesis, as I understand them:
Nature boasts not just four dimensions but
(or nine more than Ronald Reagan). Everything is arranged not just symmetrically but
symmetrically. There are a lot of new subatomic particles, called squarks, sleptons (which would explain the way my hair looks in the morning), hadrons (no,
gluons, and photinos. And the gluons hold all the others together in strings. And the scientist who got started thinking along these lines was called Theodor F. E. Kaluza.
And I’m willing to believe it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there turns out to be even
to the universe. (These new dimensions, now. Would they be something we’ve heard of? Hope, chewiness? Or would they be hard to describe: something halfway between height and time; something that’s sort of like width only with more brio and it tastes a little like dark meat of chicken?) When my son John was five he asked me, “Does the world have everything in the world in it?”
Although it’s hard to comprehend. Who would ever have thought there would be a man called Theodor F. E. Kaluza? And that’s just the world. In the universe, there is no telling what all, I’ll bet. A squark may have some manner of farms and weather and TV shows inside it; and way on off in the other direction there may be things that think of was new particles. For all we know they call us niblets, say — not having any idea what that means in our language.
Now. How do we square this with Ronald Reagan’s sense of reality? We square it by bearing in mind that Ronald Reagan makes many Americans feel good.
But so do drugs, in the short run. Cocaine makes you feel like you’ve got the world on a string because it makes you feel like you have cut through all the real strings. When I think of the strings attached to Reaganism, my mind turns to the federal deficit. Surely we would not be in such great financial shape if we weren’t $200 billion in the hole. So I think it is incumbent upon us, as Americans, to
we are a fifth of a trillion short. It’s not easy; but then it’s no snap to take cognizance of the purple mountain majesties, either.
Maybe I am tied to some kind of old-fashioned symmetry. But I can’t help thinking that eventually we are going to have to dig up that $200 billion somewhere. And I don’t want the Treasury Department to be scratching around at the last minute, reduced to desperate measures. Holding an international raffle, hundred million bucks a ticket, winner gets his face carved on Mount Rushmore. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if it’s the CEO of one of our own defense contractors — even though he would presumably tack the $100 million (promotional expenses) onto his next bill to the government. But what if it’s some relative of the late Shah who lives in Gstaad and has little bitty rabbit teeth and a pencil-thin mustache, or the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, or the head of a South American government’s Bureau de Coca? And how many people are there, worldwide, outside of Miami (where they probably don’t want a high profile), who can put their hands on that kind of cash today? Say there are a couple of thousand. That just adds up to $20 billion, that’s a drop in the bucket. And wait a minute: don’t forget the expense of the carving. That kind of work today, you’re lucky to get it done for a couple of billion, even if you throw in a free chance in the drawing for the sculptor. Then you’ve got administrative costs. Plus legal fees — some heir of Teddy Roosevelt sues for infringement. Before you know it you’re only clearing six, seven billion. But the main problem, I think, is it’s tacky.
But then, what do I know. Ronald Reagan is the most widely beloved American since E.T., and I have trouble believing he
On the question of whether he truly stands for something, here’s what Ronald Reagan told Tom Wicker in 1978: “One thing I learned as an actor. You can’t come over on the camera unless you really believe the lines you’re speaking.”
In other words, Reagan in 1939 really believed the lines of an ineffectual drunk
in 1940 he really believed the lines of an exemplary fullback
(Knute Rockne, All American);
in 1942 he really believed the lines of a liberal college professor
(Bedtime for Bonzo);
in 1957 he really believed the lines of a hard-ass naval commander
(Hellcats of the Navy);
in 1964 he really believed the lines of an assassin who knocks Angie Dickinson flat
and in 1985 he really believes the lines of a Clint-Eastwood-with-affability who regards a blood-soaked faction in Nicaragua as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” who observes that Nazi war dead were no less victimized than concentration-camp martyrs, and who adds, “Yes, I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform four years myself” (in California, making films).
Lines, in that sense, are different from strings, in the nature-of-physical-reality sense. But I think Reagan does stand for something. He reminds me of Elvis. “If I could ever find a white boy who could sing like a nigger,” the man who first recorded Elvis had said, “I could make a million dollars.” I think Ronald Reagan caught the eye of a lot of people who, in the same spirit (adjusted for inflation), were looking for a true believer who could grin (and sweeten the pot) like a liberal.
Years ago I left my home in Georgia, at the risk of losing touch with precious gluons of oral resonance, because in Georgia I sensed a too-shameless concentration of people who loved to fulminate against Russia and smut, who felt it was pusillanimous to survey the world from any other point of view than that of the eagle on the dollar, and who seemed to feel not only high-minded but even tingly when they looked upon the Pentagon as a case of pure need and upon fatherless babies in the ghetto as cases of threateningly unbridled self-interest. And all this in the name of Jesus.
As far as I can tell, Ronald Reagan is one of those people. Only without the oral resonance.
“Those people.” A dangerous phrase. Those people
aren’t tied to. You don’t hear Miss Liberty using that phrase. “It takes all kinds,” you hear her saying, with relish. I don’t get the feeling that Ronald Reagan agrees with her.
I think that Ronald Reagan thinks that those forces, and his smile, and a wealth of imaginary capital, are all America needs. When elements clash with what he has in mind, he sees no reason why those elements shouldn’t disappear.
You can tell that from his jokes. He jokes about dropping bombs on Russia and exporting dissatisfied farmers. To uncooperative Congressmen he says, “Make my day,” which is what Clint Eastwood (who couldn’t tie John Wayne’s shoes) says when he is itching to blow some punk away. When Reagan was governor of California, and Patty Hearst’s kidnappers were demanding that free canned goods be distributed to ghetto dwellers, he said it would be a good time for an epidemic of botulism. I don’t get those jokes. I am not
to get them. If you ask me, jocularity ought to get down and strum the all-but-inconceivable strings that bind the whole range of Miss Liberty’s children (okay, so she’s not married; she doesn’t need to be made an honest woman) supersymmetrically together. This book is not about Ronald Reagan
(whatever that might mean). But what I have in mind, roughly speaking, is to pull against the President’s sense of humor without losing hold of mine.
Well we know we’re not exactly what we have in mind,
But that’s how things tend to go, I find.
The mind’s got a job to do and so do we.
Lord have mercy on reality.
HERE ARE ECONOMISTS WHO
say, “Hey, don’t worry about it. It’s not, you know,
as you know it.”
There are economists who say, “It will mean — unless real, drastic, structural steps are taken by next fiscal Thursday — that Arabs will own your grandchildren.”