Category Archives: Seymour Krim

Instant Success

Holy_GrailSo, the story goes a talent agent spotted film actress Lana Turner when she ditched a typing class for a coke at Schwab’s Drug Store in Hollywood. It was really the Top Hat Café, but the name of the place matters little. She was nothing and, in less than a moment, something. In another decade or two, few people will remember Lana Turner, much less the roller-coaster life she led from that point on, but other stories will certainly supplant hers.

American mythology swims in discovery stories. The slightest eventuality can make us—the friction between one numbered ping-pong ball and another, a brother-in-law who has a cousin who has a friend who has a cousin who has a brother-in-law who has an idea, the unaccountable impulse to shine a flashlight into the darkest corner of an attic just when you decide it’s too hot to stay, the bizarre eventuality that puts you in the seat next to a famous power broker in an unusually receptive mood.

The best American success stories involve work only incidentally, just twirling tumblers of a safe until it softly and inevitably clicks open. If the door of opportunity swings for a minute, an hour, a year, or forever, nothing can surpass that instant when you are free for life. That miracle.

At my age, the door of discovery seems welded, and I’ve never had the gumption for the savvy networking and clever positioning that lands people in just the right places when attention sweeps their way. Yet, as no effective solution prevents dreaming, I’m susceptible. My modest successes as a teacher, writer, and artist ought to be enough (and mostly are), but I still imagine being found.

When I meet with students about essays, they sometimes slump deeper as our conversation goes on and on and suggestions accumulate. They hoped for so much and thought this essay—at last—might make their undeniable writing talent clear and propel them to reliable success forever more. Sometimes, I’m tempted to say what one of my MFA teachers once said to me, “You didn’t really expect me to say, ‘I love it. Don’t change a word!’ did you?”

The obvious answer, for me and for my students, is “Yes.” The fantasy of discovery begins with the world recognizing how deserving you have always been. For once in your miserable life, others will see you just as you wish to see yourself and marvel at how you’ve gone unnoticed so long.

At this stage I tell myself that my being discovered might be more like finding a sock under the washing machine when it’s replaced. As surprising as it might be—a mystery solved!—it’s rather academic. I abandoned the sock’s mate long ago, the mourning period passed long ago. The dream of fame, status, and repute as an instantaneous serendipitous confluence of fateful events suits younger people better.

I wish my little measure of acceptance was enough, but when others experience success—as they inevitably will—believing in your own deserving seems so much easier than believing in theirs. Hope, the feeling Emily Dickinson called “The thing with feathers,” still wants to fly, and against the stiffest winter wind. The little voice saying “Why not me?” never really quiets.

Some people will say that voice is crucial, that, to an American especially, the promise of success is akin to the promise of sunrise, another assurance of good things ahead if we ready ourselves for chance. “What would we do without our ambition?” they ask, “What would we say, after all, if we couldn’t say, ‘It might happen’?”

Maybe. More welcome, however, would be feeling you have success enough. These stories may be the sole means to make discontent tolerable or the greatest source of discontent. I’m not sure. But waking up one morning accepting my own worth—feeling it’s real without ratification or verification—could be the greatest discovery of all.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, America, Art, Buddhism, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Essays, Fame, Hope, Identity, life, Modern Life, Seymour Krim, Thoughts, Worry

Striving and Seeking

Seymour Krim, 1922-1989

One sleepy morning when my son was 11 or 12, he stood at the open refrigerator door, sighed, and said, “I have eaten all the breakfast foods.”

Of course he hadn’t. Never had he eaten baked beans or kippers or eggs flavored with shrimp shells or other morning food people eat elsewhere. But I understood his lament. I too have felt finished forever with new breakfast foods…and a number of other things. Hunger for experience exhausts possibilities…especially when what’s left seems harder and harder to come by.

I envy people who embrace routine. They have a voracious appetite for assembling clothes before bed or checking schedules each morning. They are happy to have cottage cheese for lunch again, and, should it be missing, they taxi around the salad bar patiently. And they always, always, always floss.

I floss too—I have my own regularities—and wish all my habits were so satisfying. I’d love to exorcise the ghosts on my to-do lists daily and account for events that, right now, seem to appear as if “Pop Goes the Weasel” has been playing in the background all along without my noticing. If I regarded my calendar as an aid to memory (the way normal people do) instead of as a regular flogging, I’d have more time to…think about what I’d do if I had more time.

But any task—even stimulating ones, like routine exercise or sketching or having a regular date with self-examination like this—can grow exhausting.

Why is routine so unsatisfying? In the 70’s Seymour Krim wrote an essay, “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” where he described himself as “an open fuse-box of blind yearning” and labeled democracy, “a huge supermarket of mass man where we could take a piece here and a piece there to make our personalities for ourselves instead of what was given at the beginning.”

It’s easy to confuse a desire for something new with a desire to be something new. I’ve gone through a seemingly endless string of lift-offs and flame-out avocations, as a blues harmonica player, as a short story writer, as an actor, as a competitive runner, as a poet, as a visual artist, as a blogger. I’m smart enough to know I’ll get nowhere without perseverance and regular practice, but when the work gets hard and is no longer fresh, my ambition grinds to a frictional stop like a streetcar deprived of electricity

Krim writes:

America worked on us too hard, when you get right down to it. We imaginatively lived out all the mythic possibilities, all the personal turn-on of practically superhuman accomplishment, stimulated by the fables of the media. We were the perfect big-eyed consumers of this country’s four-color ad to the universe, wanting to be one tempting thing and then another and ending up, most of us, with little but the sadly smiling hope that time would somehow solve our problem.

When I teach Krim’s essay, some students say his complaints cause his failures. They would never say he should “Get off his ass and do something,” but that’s the subtext of their remarks. I don’t blame them for rejecting his hopelessness. They are, and should be, optimistic about bright futures ahead. I’m not ready to indict America for my yearnings either. I know anything worth having is worth working years for. Yet Krim isn’t entirely wrong. The relentless expectancy of modern life makes personal satisfaction a battle. It’s a struggle to keep up with happiness when its pursuit requires continual novelty, progress, recognition, and material success.

WordPress tells me that I’m completing the 261st post on this blog and, sometimes when I notice all I’ve written here, I wonder if I can keep the pace I’ve set. One morning I might wake up to discover I have nothing new to say and that my faith in striving has evaporated. And I can’t help wondering if that will be a good or bad day, the day my soul abandons its restlessness, its ceaseless search for new landscapes and vistas, its endless desire to escape itself.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, America, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Seymour Krim, Thoughts