Pretending Something’s Great

Fergie defines cringeworthy.

Pretending a thing’s great, because we’ve already decided it’s great (or the media or an authority figure has convinced us it’s great), is an affliction suffered by many (particularly in the insecure American middle class). For example, people sometimes praise a film because respected and intellectual movie critics give it a high rating; when those same people watch the film, they find in it virtues that may not really be there, simply to avoid feeling like they don’t “get it.”

This tendency creates some awkward public situations. Imagine a famous singer waiting to sing the national anthem before a game. She stands center-court or midfield, depending on the sport, knowing whichever team loses will see its season end this very night–that’s how important the game is. The singer’s voice is the source of her fame. When she performs, people expect flourishes, tonal modulations, effortless vibrato–a general mastery overall. The lights are brighter than those of the venues to which she’s accustomed, and it’s odd to be alone in the center, with no backstage to retreat to, and all that anxious energy stewing in a ring around her. Nevertheless, she’s a professional. Clutching the microphone with both hands, the tip comes to rest lightly on the indentation between her chin and lower lip, and she begins.

Except on this occasion, she starts the song a couple steps high, effectively placing the word “free”–the big climax, seventh word from the end–just out of range. No one knows this but her, and she struggles to keep a quaver from her voice. This game is televised–the effects of a screw-up are infinite. The audience assumes she can sing anything, and in any range. As long as she’s playing to her strengths, which would normally be the case, she can prevent them ever knowing she has limits. But tonight, apparently, a limit was going to reveal itself. The word approaches. She feels she has no choice but to go for it. So with all her respiratory might, she belts it out long and loud, and it’s a half-step flat, and there’s an obvious strain in her voice. Anyone not tone-deaf would notice. She is mortified, but manages to finish the song.

The audience goes wild with deafening cheers and applause. A generous observer might credit their enthusiasm to their esteem for the American flag, and for a handful, this may be true. Still, others might simply be getting a head start cheering for whichever team they support. But the majority of the crowd is clearly blinded by celebrity–by what they expected to hear, as opposed to what they did hear. They react out of the foregone conclusion that Singer X is great, that she is a famous singer because she’s a phenomenal singer; that money follows quality. You can be certain, though, there’s another, more quiet contingent who feels extremely awkward right now, because they’re honest with themselves about what they just witnessed: a famous singer blowing it on a really big stage. And it somehow makes it worse that people are pretending it didn’t happen. In fact, they’re going beyond pretending it didn’t happen: they’re acting as if it was wonderful.

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

 

 

Imagine a Life without Notions

Close-up of van Gogh’s “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.”

Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.

It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.

Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Invisible Man, Part 2: Clarifications

Photograph from Liu Bolin’s Invisible Man series.

Self-delusion came up in Monday’s post on being invisible. For clarification’s sake, I don’t believe anyone, except maybe the clinically insane, thinks they’re actually invisible, as in no one can see them standing there. Our bodies are the ever-present vessels of us–without them, we are not. What I mean by invisible, rather, as was probably obvious, is that one’s genuine self never breaks the surface. Glimpses are caught now and again, as when a would-be leviathan rises close enough to the water’s surface that a massive dark form is detected, but then it retreats back into the depths so suddenly it leaves the observer wondering whether he saw anything at all.

Then there are those moments that remind the invisible of their state–those moments that startle them into the awareness that they’re largely unknown by others. Again, for clarification, I’m not speaking of mere anonymity. The overwhelming majority of us are anonymous with respect to the wide world in which we live. The moments I’m referring to, the ones that startle us, do so because they occur in the presence of those we assume really know us: parents, siblings, lifelong friends, et cetera. Sure, they know us superficially–they know our relation to them, major life events we’ve undergone, and perhaps a few of our general interests. But a view to the inner workings is translucent at best, like stained glass, permitting only a dulled (but colorful) light, and allowing only the most basic evidence of forms.

Something else I mentioned Monday was that the artist is obligated to believe in his inner world. To elaborate, he can’t dismiss it as being less important, or less concrete, metaphysically speaking, than the outer world, where commerce happens. Since art is forever valid to the artist and the art lover, it’s not a dismissible commodity to be abandoned in the face of budget cuts, or to be relegated to the status of prettification; it shares in the essence of anything and everything that makes life worthwhile. Even what doesn’t reveal itself in the physical world–that which is pure imagination–is valid if it can be included in art, because art does reveal itself in the physical world. It is the physical manifestation of the inner world, and is therefore indispensable. (Forgive my tendency to lump the artist in with the invisible. The ranks of the invisible are not limited to artists, but I have no doubt the artist is intimate with this invisibility, revealing herself or himself almost exclusively in what s/he creates.)

None of this would matter if we weren’t born with a longing to be known. Yet it falls on some to never fully arrive, who are blessed if even one person understands them. Invisibility can be lived with, however, often contentedly, particularly if the one invisible is a born observer rather than a participator. But no matter how practiced at solitude the invisible man is, loneliness might still sneak in through a crack in the glass.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist