Monday, December 5, 2011

On Paying My Debts

In my ongoing need to repay debts my creditors have most likely forgotten about--and might I hasten to say that I hope God is this kind of creditor--I'm still trying to read books that I'd blown off in high school.

Unfinished books cause one minute of anxiety for: (every year they're not finished) X (the number of hundreds of pages in the book) X (1 + the percentage of the book finished). Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim is the pinnacle of what I'm calling the Anxiety of the Unfinished. Festering for 12 years. 300 pages. And I'd nearly completed it when I was asked to leave my senior year English Class on account of conduct unbecoming a preppy: I ventriloquized my teacher in a creative writing assignment, and since I'd wrongly convinced myself that I couldn't ever hurt anyone--being mostly inconsequential and good-natured--I failed to see how sharp I'd been.

C'est l'adolescence.

At that point, I never read anything I didn't have to, so I didn't finish Lord Jim, and, until yesterday, it remained nothing but a bookshelf-straining taunter, dog-eared up to the end, contemptible, contemptuous.

Lord Jim. 12 X 3 X 1.95 = 70.2 minutes of anxiety (plus at least two extra hours because of the circumstances of my chagrin). And I didn't know what was happening in it anyway! So, I was unmotivated to go back in, and yet after I'd spent a full few hours of light to moderate anxiety thinking involuntarily about its tiny, annotated arial, its baffling story-within-a-story, and its troubling imperial undertones, I finally took my medicine.

Because I've had it with saying "eventually," especially when it comes to small tasks. For too long I said I was going to re-read Lord Jim without any intention of actually doing so, and I finally figured out that this pose is useless.

I call it the Mom-in-the-Attic Conundrum, after my mom's consistent declaration that she will finally empty the attic when summer rolls around. Now, my mom is not a dishonest person. Maybe she believes she will clean out the attic each June 21st. (Maybe she's hinting that I should help her; meanwhile, if I say, especially in this context, that I will help her, I'll have to follow-through, so I'll hedge).

Anyway, I found myself falling too often into that pattern of anticipated achievement followed by prolonged procrastination followed by ultimate abandoning.

Now, I've swung around to the opposite extreme in some ways. Last summer, I told an old friend at a wedding that I would definitely see him the next time I was in Washington; his girlfriend looked at me with the "I know you're full of crap" eyes--we'd mostly fallen out of touch, and my banter was of a recognizable wedding genre: blustery bonhomie.

But I took her look as a deep challenge. I'm not the kind of person who fair-weather promises only to normal-weather back out. I sought him out in D.C. and we ate Ethiopian food. Because I will not be called a fibber. And because I love cardamom.

Then two weeks ago, after one beer too many at a poker game, I said that I would do an eating challenge with two other guys--the kind of empty-boast-bluff that used to sit in my stomach like a rock. But having boasted, I needed to carry out the deed; and the carrying-out-of-the-deed then sat in my stomach like a rock, but a nourishing rock of truth (and pork).

Lord Jim I also consumed. And so I've paid my debt to high school, as I paid my debt to college when I read The Adventures of Augie March, as I paid my debt to Central One Credit Union after I bought too many unread books, as I'll eventually pay my debt to my mom by buying her a lighthouse--which will not have an attic.

And then on to God (no anxiety equation), who isn't easy to re-read, keeps my credit score hidden, and has really weird, unliftable urns in his attic.


Joe said...

You owe me a jam session. And some basketball. We owe each other some calimari. I owe you The Big Sleep.

Let us owe and be owed to.

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