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Miss U.S.A. An Essay By Studs Terkel

My own beliefs, my personal beliefs, came into being during the most traumatic moment in American history: the Great American Depression of the 1930s. I was 17 at the time, and I saw on the sidewalks pots and pans and bedsteads and mattresses. A family had just been evicted and there was an individual cry of despair, multiplied by millions. But that community had a number of people on that very block who were electricians and plumbers and carpenters and they appeared that same evening, the evening of the eviction, and moved these household goods back into the flat where they had been. They turned on the gas; they fixed the plumbing. It was a community in action accomplishing something.

And this is my belief, too: that it's the community in action that accomplishes more than any individual does, no matter how strong he may be.

Einstein once observed that Westerners have a feeling the individual loses his freedom if he joins, say, a union or any group. Precisely the opposite's the case. The individual discovers his strength as an individual because he has, along the way, discovered others share his feelings — he is not alone, and thus a community is formed. You might call it the prescient community or the prophetic community. It's always been there.

And I must say, it has always paid its dues, too. The community of the '30s and '40s and the Depression, fighting for rights of laborers and the rights of women and the rights of all people who are different from the majority, always paid their dues. But it was their presence as well as their prescience that made for whatever progress we have made.

And that's what Tom Paine meant when he said: "Freedom has been hunted around the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. In such a situation, man becomes what he ought to be."

Still quoting Tom Paine: "He sees his species not with the inhuman idea of a natural enemy" — you're either with us or against us, no. "He sees his species as kindred."

And that happens to be my belief, and I'll put it into three words: community in action.

Born in 1912, Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian Studs Terkel moved to Chicago shortly before the Great Depression. Although trained as a lawyer, he worked as an actor, sportscaster, disc jockey, writer and interviewer. Terkel hosted a Chicago radio program for 45 years and has authored 12 oral histories about 20th-century America.

Madeleines – And Hong Kong Egg Cakes – From Reading About Alice By Calvin Trillin1

Reading Calvin (Bud) Trillin’s2About Alice, his loving portrait of his wife, Alice, who died September 11, 2001 and the life they shared, triggered my recall of Studs Terkel’s lament on the loss of his wife, Ida,3 less than three weeks after Julie’s death:

Now that she’s gone, Who will laugh at my jokes?

I know what you mean, Studs. And, I’d wager, so does Bud.

An Audience Of One

The notion of an audience of one is promoted by fundamentalist Christians who focus their energies exclusively on pleasing God and by marketing consultants who instruct clients and devise campaigns to communicate with the individual consumer.

For some of us, however, the audience of one is the person with whom we share our bed and raise our family.

Consider this passage from a column written by Garry Wills two weeks after the death of Ida Terkel:

He [Studs Terkel] called her [Ida Terkel] his best critic, and always sought the supreme accolade from the one person who was not flustered by his fame.

She alone still called him by his given name, Louis, not his nickname, Studs.

Once, after he had appeared in a panel discussion, he hurried out to the audience to ask her, “How did I do?”

She gave him her quiet smile and said, “You did just fine, Louis.”

Studs also gave Ida his drafts to read prior to submitting them to the publisher and featured her, under pseudonyms, in his stories.

But one reason About Alice is, after all, the subject of this post is this excerpt that resonates with me so intensely that reading it becomes emotionally disorienting:

For one reason or another, I barely got to speak to her that evening [at the party where they first met]. Two weeks later, though, after doing some intelligence work and juggling some obligations and dismissing as hearsay the vague impression of one mutual acquaintance that Alice was virtually engaged, I dashed back from a remote suburb to a party that I figured she’d be attending. So I couldn’t claim that I just wandered into that second party; in romantic matters, even those who need to depend mainly on dumb luck are usually up to one or two deliberate moves.

At the second party, I did get to talk to her quite a lot. In fact, I must have hardly shut up. I was like a lounge comic who had been informed that a booker for The Tonight Show was in the audience. Recalling that party in later years, Alice would sometimes say, “You have never again been as funny as you were that night.”

“You mean I peaked in December of 1963?” I’d say, twenty or even thirty years later.

“I’m afraid so.”

But I never stopped trying to match that evening—not just trying to entertain her but trying to impress her. Decades later—after we had been married for more than thirty-five years, after our girls were grown—I still wanted to impress her. I still knew that if I ever disappointed her in some fundamental way—if I ever caused her to conclude that, after all was said and done, she should have said no when, at the end of that desperate comedy routine, I asked her if we could have dinner sometime—I would have been devastated. …

I showed Alice everything I wrote in rough draft—partly because I valued her opinion but partly because I hoped to impress her. If the piece was meant to be funny, the sound of laughter from the next room was a great reward. The dedication of the first book I wrote after I’d met her, a collection of comic short stories, said, until I decided that the last few words were too corny, “These stories were written for Alice—to make her giggle.” When I wrote in the dedication of a book “For Alice,” I meant it literally. In that sense, the headline on her obituary in the Times was literally true, as well as in the correct order: it described her as “Educator, Author and Muse.”

When Alice died, I was going over the galleys of a novel about parking in New York—a subject so silly that I think I would have hesitated to submit the book to a publisher if she hadn’t, somewhat to her surprise, liked it. When the novel was published, the dedication said, “I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice.”

Because About Alice is only 78 pages long, appeared as a modestly shorter essay, “Alice, Off the Page,” in the March 27, 2006 New Yorker, and has been heavily reviewed, readers are likely to have already been exposed to this portion of the book. This familiarity may attenuate the importance of these paragraphs as the fulcrum of About Alice. That would be a loss for the reader.

What About Alice Is And Is Not About

About Alice is not about Alice’s lung cancer, its first remission, its recurrence, the probability that her parents’ almost constant smoking may have been a causative factor, her forbearance of the debilitating treatment, or any of the other details of her disease or treatment, although that information is provided in the book.

Nor is About Alice a biography of Alice, although her accomplishments, her friendships, and even her physical beauty are laid before the reader.

Nor does About Alice fit on the thanatological bookshelf. The Five Stages Of Grief Elizabeth Kübler-Ross specified (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) appear to be insufficient for some who require one additional step en route to psychological equilibrium: Publication.

About Alice has little in common with the exhaustively detailed and excruciatingly painful intrapsychic excursion Joan Didion describes in The Year of Magical Thinking, written after the death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne.4

Nor is About Alice the kind of elegant discourse on desolation, loss, and disease represented by the lovely poetry (that I treasure) written by Donald Hall after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon.

And, wonderfully enough, About Alice is almost devoid of advice, a crucial differentiation from the genre in which Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven currently star, the set of spiritual instructions manuals, and the more sectarian didactic books such as the Handbook of Death and Dying (2 Vol. Set).5

About Alice is precisely the eloquent, loving, buoyant report of an outrageously happy marriage.

Striving To Impress and Happy Marriages

My contention is that spending ones days striving to win the admiration of an altogether admirable wife (or, I suppose, the admiration of an altogether admirable husband although I’m less sure of that) may not guarantee an outrageously happy marriage but does place that status within reach.

Striving to impress that one beloved individual also ensures a certain focus. I noted at the beginning of this post that Alice Trillin died on September 11, 2001. It happened that she died in New York. That others in that city perished that day is, appropriately and tellingly, never referenced by Trillin in About Alice.

About Alice is a glorious book that anyone who has been or wants to be in love deserves to read.

About Julie

My only bitterness from reading About Alice is that Trillin’s skills and audience far exceed my own. Julie played George to my Gracie as Alice did for Calvin, and I’ve spent the more than 30 years since I met Julie, including those years we were both married to others and the years since her death, trying to win her admiration, sometimes managing to do so. My whinging regarding About Alice is limited to my realization that Julie deserves, but I can’t provide, accolades of the sort Trillin bestows on Alice in this book.

Outrageously happy marriage,6 not so incidentally, is the phrase I’ve habitually used to describe my life with Julie in conversations, in this blog, and even as part of my online dating profile.

I’m willing to share it with Calvin and Alice.

About Those Hong Kong Egg Cakes In The Title

Those familiar with my previous 1HeckOfAGuy.com blog know that I routinely title posts dealing with books I’ve read in the format of “Madeleines From Reading X,” referencing Proust’s culinary memory stimulator. In this case, the title would have been Madeleines From Reading Calvin Trillin’s About Alice.

I once read, however, in Trillin’s book, Family Man, about

Hong Kong egg cakes – delicacies whose taste I [Calvin Trillin] once described as ‘what a madeleine would taste like if the French really understood such things.’

Given my long-standing fondness of Trillin’s writing and my rapture with About Alice, I decided that, for today only, a menu substitution was called for.

Besides, that’s the kind of clever gesture that would amuse and, maybe, impress Julie.

Hong Kong Cakes, also called gai daan jai, are a bit like waffles.

Proust’s emblematic pastry

Trillin’s preference

 

Julie Showalter

Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.

Credit Due Department: Madeleine photo by Bernard Leprêtre (Own work) CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikipedia Hong Kong Cakes pihoto by Morsesp3 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia

Note: Originally posted Mar 28, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

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