Three Aborted Essays from Patrick Madden
[A note from the author: Partly to honor the long tradition of essayists disparaging their efforts (Montaigne called his essays “excrements of an aged mind”) and partly to counteract my natural verbosity, I’ve begun writing brief, intentionally unfinished essays, which I hope highlight the inevitable incompleteness of all essays. I take as my launching point a seemingly sincere lament by William Hazlitt, who, upon observing the “next to miraculous” skill of a street juggler, considers his own life’s work and finds it painfully lacking. I don’t bemoan the value and validity of essays so utterly, but I do find that keeping a broad, humble perspective can situate a writer so that he can turn Hazlitt’s cry joyous and celebratory.]
What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill! — William Hazlitt, “The Indian Jugglers”
Aborted Essay on Distance
Looking to the majestic mountain in front of us, Rory said, “This is when Timpanogos looks like a postcard,” and I thought, as I often do, how the stillness is an illusion of distance, how if we were standing on one of its peaks, we’d be whipped and blown by cold winds, and what tree branches we saw would be all in motion. I thought of the stilling effect of distance and said something to that effect, feeling as I said it that I was grasping at the rough shape of an essay I might discover if I began to write it. Rory agreed, adding, “It’s just like the Bette Midler song ‘From a Distance.’ You know? She talks about how everything looks tranquil from a distance” (he sang that last titular bit). Of course she does, I thought, and confirmed the lyrical message later. “From a distance,” she croons with aching earnestness, everything is peace and plenty, there’s no poverty, no violence, there’s friendship instead of war, and God looks on…it’s not clear how: contented? clueless? disappointed? testing us?
I have discovered time and again that what original thought I thought I had thought was long ago thought better and expressed more eloquently by another thinker more intelligent and more elegant, and always I’ve accepted my overlap humbly, feeling that at least I have happened down the same path as one of the greats. But when I learned that Bette Midler, or (later, upon confirming the lyrics) that songwriter Julie Gold beat me to the notion of distance’s quelling influence and used it to make a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling, music-box-filling, Congressional-record-entering, Mir-space-station-alarming, children’s-book/calendar/greeting-card-inspiring, tear-jerking, heart-touching pop song, well…
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Aborted Essay on Judgment
There’s a guy I play lunchtime basketball with a couple of times a week, an older guy with a whip-quick one-handed outside shot, a shorter guy with replaced hips who hobbles up and down the court trying to recapture the glory, refusing to retire to the other gym’s short-court old-guys game. In pregame banter, he’s affable and interested, but in games he’s quickly put-out when the rhythms of press and break leave him behind roaming the perimeter while the quicker, younger players drive the lane and pound the boards. Soon he’s making his annoyance public, shouting for passes that he rarely gets, insulting his teammates for ignoring him, while we huff and juke and pick and pass looking for the open shot by anyone within twenty-one feet of the basket. What are we to do, after all? This is not a game of rugby, and a backwards pass is not only inadvisable, but in certain circumstances illegal, as when he’s so lackadaisical that he never makes it across mid-court, fulfilling his own prophecy that no one will pass to him. So we revert to a four-on-five most plays or give him the ball to bring upcourt when the other team scores or slow down the offense, but inevitably, after a game and a half, he’s tired and irritable and he’ll get wide open in the wings calling for the ball but there’ll be a better, more obvious pass, which becomes a score, which drives him nuts and cussing under his breath, so he takes his ball and leaves in a huff, despite our desperate pleas, “C’mon, man. Just play the game.”
While we wait for a guy to get another ball and a replacement player, we chat about how there’s no pleasing him, how he brings about the conditions of his own woe, how if he’s going to dog it, at least he should keep his comments to himself, and isn’t that the depth of immaturity, to take your ball and leave? I mean, it’s a cliché. Then we get back to our game and the team he left inevitably surges as they’ve now got five full-court players moving quickly and smiling, even when I make a boneheaded move and clunk the ball off the backboard.
But the other day, as we sat out waiting for the next game, he made a joke about leaving briefly for some brain surgery, he’ll be right back, and I said “I could use some brain surgery myself. Do you think it would help?” and he said, almost offhandedly, “I know someone who’s had brain surgery. That stuff really works.” And since we had time to kill, I asked, “Who’s that?” and he said, “My son was in a terrible motorcycle accident, flew right over his handlebars and split his skull right open. Doctors said he wouldn’t make it through the night.” Aware that such talk was far deeper than our typical badinage, I pressed gently, expressing my sympathies. The accident had happened only eight or nine weeks ago, the one time his son went out without a helmet. After he made it through the night, doctors suggested emergency surgery, primarily to relieve fluid buildup and pressure on the brain, which the son’s wife quickly assented to, and this last-resort went well, and today he is learning to walk again and seems alert, through not entirely himself. The brain surgery seems to have been the miracle everyone was praying for, but we won’t know for a year whether he’ll ever return to the life he had.
Here every writerly instinct tells me to stop, just stop. Readers get it. They’ve figured it out. But running through my head that day at the gym and almost continuously until now there’s this hymn we sing in church, which I would like to share, if you don’t mind: “Who am I to judge another when I walk imperfectly? In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” This is a lesson, I know, and I am constitutionally averse to lessons in my literature, as they are inevitably reductive, and yet it is inextricable, inherent to my apprehension of this moment, which will not change the tension on the court but will change the meaning I make of it, which is what literature aims to do, isn’t it?
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Aborted Essay on Memory
There’s still a part of me that wants to explain about the fly ball I dropped last summer during the annual softball game. Yes, I was talking to Karina on the phone there in center field, and yes it took me a second to react to the crack of the bat, and yes my nerves flared up at the thought of the task, but I threw down the phone and ran, as swiftly as I could in my time-hobbled state, and I got my glove under the ball at just the moment to save the day and stave off the opponents’ surge. The ball tumbled through, you will remember, hitting the turf as I stumbled forward then turned awkwardly to pick it up and heave it (quite accurately, impressively) home on one bounce, keeping most of the runners on base, but the damage was done, with one run scored and still only two outs, soon followed by a barrage of well-placed hits that drove home run after run, chipping away at, then taking, the lead.
We won, as it turned out, and people who remember the game to me are much more likely to recall my effective hitting, never bringing up my gaffe, so I should probably keep my mouth shut, but for the sake of truth and knowledge, and for the opponent who had to share that old glove when his team took the field, I feel I must explain that the leather stitching between the pocket and the fingers was rotten or stolen away, leaving less a pocket for holding onto things than a trapdoor through which things you’d suppose would stick would instead slip through in the very moment you thought you had them firmly in your grasp…
Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and his essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He's completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays.