To the Point

It's not what Congress can do for you, it's what you can do to Congress--Buddy Dooley

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Marginalia and Its Discontents

From Round Bend author and Tacoma artist K.C. Bacon comes this funny essay on a phenomenon we all feel deeply about--marginalia.

Marginalia and Its Discontents

Tearing open the brown sleeve it arrived in, I immediately began scanning the book of personal essays by a dozen or more well-know writers, some of whom I had actually read before. I had been looking forward to the essays ever since I'd ordered it from an vendor in Connecticut, eager for what I might learn about each writer's rendering of whatever they felt meaningful in their personal lives. I thought it would be like listening to a good friend's good stories about good times, even if those good times weren't so good. It would be a feast of sorts, a high repast at my reading table.

Or so I thought.

But when I opened the book at its middle, to fan it as I usually do, letting the pages breathe, so to speak, like one might do with a bottle of wine, I saw the first portend of trouble. For in pencil, on both pages, with several arrowed lines pointing to circled words in the text, and alongside underlined passages, one of which took up a third of the page, were the scribblings of a former reader - marginalia!

I fanned the pages. Acht! The thing was replete with pencil jottings on nearly all its pages. I felt like I'd woken up after going on a three-day binge with a novice tattoo artist whose idea of a practical joke was to graffiti me while I was passed out. The marks were everywhere.

I recoiled as from a bee sting. No, rather more like from a swallow who, upset that I had strolled too close to its nest, had made a strafing run at my head. I twinged. I might as well have been having lunch next to a table where a single person sits, talking to someone by way of a black and silver phone beetle stuck in their ear. When I see those weird contraptions in someone's ear, I think of an alien sucking the life out of another alien.

And I felt invaded, my private peace assaulted. The image of my car after it had been vandalized came to me. The thieves, finding nothing of value, hence upset, had torn my glove box off its hinges, a rushed epithet hurled at my stinginess.

Marginalia, by itself, is reasonable in reasonable hands. After all, we all jot in our books to celebrate a thought, or to simply join in the writerly fun. But this was overkill, a crime against human intercourse (perhaps done by a reader with a genetic predisposition to vandalism?). Whatever the reason, it was irritating in the same way public bad manners are irritating.

I guess bad manners existed even in Og's cave, though every age since has offered up its own special annoyances. Og, probably, was lucky in this regard. He only had to put up with his she-person sitting on his dinner, or doing that ridiculous shadow dance with the bear skull while he was trying to have sleep visions. I can see Og time-capsuled forward ten thousand years, popped up and standing in a Safeway checkout line next to someone chattering into the empty air like a lunatic and saying to himself, "She-person might sit on my dinner, but at least she isn't rude."

Some of these lunatics also employ hand gestures, an added weapon in their arsenal of bothersomeness. With the alien phone beetle in their ears (some have a bristle-arm sweeping around their cheeks with a microphone on the end of it, sitting in front of their swamp mouths like a bug morsel awaiting the long tongue), they stride the streets and public places gesticulating like mimes who have not captured the fact that mimes are not supposed to shout.

But the serial marginalia-ist is the best of breed. I guessed the one that Jackson Pollack-ed my book of personal essays was a she, given the soft teleology of the script. It had a forward tilt, but only just. It had a look of practiced purpose, done by a disordered, distracted mind.

I remembered the time when I waited on a fastball when my teammate decided to steal from first and I could not help but see him in the corner of my eye for just the second it took me to strike out. He of course was thrown out for a double play. And everyone blamed me. "For Christ's sake," I wanted to complain, but was only twelve and not yet given to blasphemy, "it wasn't me…he sidetracked my eye." Now, these decades later, a time when I am able to curse or blaspheme happy and free, it neither does any good nor pleases me to report that there are among us shitheads who are still blaming the wrong person for the errors of themselves. And no one performs this crude duty with more brio than the l'enfant marginaliste.

The overzealous marginalia-maniac has cousins, too. For example, there is the man of interesting observations from whom we must listen to the cost of his newly repaired car, or how he came to name his dog, Fred. Well, he finds it interesting, and that's enough for him, isn't it? Any conversation with him is limited to silently thinking, "Do you actually believe me to be such an imbecile that I am grateful to hear you rattle on about why you didn't have lunch at noon today?"

And there is of course the ubiquitous performance jokester. This is the guy who wears the baseball cap that either has stitched seagull poop dripping off its bill, or pronounces, DAMN IF I KNOW.

It was still early evening as I turned to a Max Beerbohm essay I thought I might enjoy, and saw another barrage of !!!!!!s lining the page edges like pert schoolgirls at a prom. So I shut the book, drove downtown, and drank two glasses of red wine next to a woman who was running away from her husband and had lots to say about the matter.

But even she spoke with her hands.

K.C. Bacon


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