In the mystery section are the books of Travis McGee, who lives on a boat in Fort Lauderdale. I mentioned McGee’s words of wisdom in my university class for Aging And Health. He said: Don’t buy into a white picket fence retirement “community,” because it’s hard to feel community when your neighbors keep dying and having “for sale” signs. My professor, a fellow enthusiast, immediately responded, “Travis McGee is a God.”
In The Dreadful Lemon Sky, by John D. MacDonald, (Dedicated to my prof and I) Travis finds a condominium community of singles, around courtyards and pools, where everyone is cheerfully determined to “feel like a family” and have fun… but Travis observes it’s “…a slightly frantic gaiety…Twenty years from now it was going to look a lot less graceful and productive.”
In Free Fall In Crimson Travis earns an “associate” gang pin that, he is earnestly told, entitles him to the protection ef the “brotherhood” of a biker gang. Only to have a very senior gang leader look at his badge with amusement. Apparently the “meaning of life,” besides not being a singles condo, is not brotherhood either.
Travis has enough self-awareness to see himself with irony, as a knight-errant in silly battered armor. In his Fort Lauderdale he experiences sunshine, yes, and also rain. At sea he longs for the land, on land he longs for the sea. So realistic. What he wants to know, in book after book, is “What is the Meaning of Life?” At my university it was a cliché to see students, usually a boy and a girl, earnestly discussing that—but never directly, never framed in just those words. Back then we thought there were answers; back then our student radio station played optimistic indie rock. Pessimistic country music could wait until a different time of life.
McGee’s best friend is a brilliant economist, Meyer, who lives on the next boat. In the excerpt below, (Page 48 hardcover) Meyer is the first speaker:
We walked back across the bridge together, squinting toward the western sun setting into its usual broad band of whisky soup. “I guess it doesn’t matter in any case.”
“What doesn’t matter?”
“What happens to anybody. Look at the cars, McGee. Look at the people in the cars, on the boats, on the beach, in the water. Everybody is heading toward their own obituary notice at precisely the same speed. Fat babies, and old women like lizards, and the beautiful young with long golden hair. And me and thee, McGee. A ticktock speed moving straight toward the grave, until all now living are as dead as if they had died in Ancient Rome. The only unknown, and that is a minor one, is how long will each individual travel this unchanging, unchangeable pace?”
“Good God, Meyer! I was going to buy you dinner.”
“Not today. This is not one of my good days. I think I’ll open a can of something, go walking alone, fold up early. No need to poison somebody else’s evening.”
Away he trudged, not looking back. It happens sometimes, Not often. A curious gaiety, followed by bleak, black depression. It was a Meyer I seldom see and do not know at all. ++
University is far behind me, but I still wonder about things: I think a meaningful life can include good mystery novels, good learning and good music.
For me, a good life includes discussions, such as the ones shared by McGee and Meyer. Sure, I try to be a “regular guy” but let’s face it: I’m an intellectual—and “us intellectual folk” discuss as if we were still in university. The British essayist George Orwell, in a piece on Rudyard Kipling, has pointed out that intellectuals never go off to the colonies. He meant they stay with their own precious few in London. The American poet Emily Dickinson, in her mid-west small town, had no poems published until after her death. To the townsfolk she was known as a recluse. A recluse? How understandable, how natural, in the eyes of award winning science fiction writer Connie Willis. Willis has pointed out that Dickinson wrote her brilliant classic stuff while surrounded by mundane people who just wouldn’t understand.
Here is a poem where Dickinson surely had been thinking about meaning:
If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking
by Emily Dickinson
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one heart the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
~Here’s an old joke:
Q: What do you get when you play a country record backwards?
A: You get your dog back, your truck back, your wife back… …
~In the last three posts I’ve had “poem” in the title—which (I think) has drastically reduced my hit count. So I this time I switched to “remarks.”
~I was young when I read Orwell; I thought then that intellectuals stayed in London to be soft, not truly grasping how rare their fellowship would be. In the essay Orwell often used the term “sensitive” as part of explaining Kipling (not sensitive enough to gag at seeing the realities of imperialism, for instance) but I did not make “sensitive” part of my vocabulary, and I did not think of applying it to myself. I was young, with a blind spot.
~Orwell fans know that his essays are far better than his novels.