In Tribute to James Thurber
Say “James Thurber” and even equatorial pygmies will smile and say, “Walter Mitty!” In a way, this is kind of a shame. Thurber’s writing went way beyond his humor. He saw the nature of people, and used his skills to try to make the world better. His wit could be acerbic, and the targets of his poison pen would be skewed.
His piece “Memorial”, written for a dog who had died, was the most moving and inspirational summation of life, love, and loss. He took on McCarthyism in “Look Out for the Thing” and “The Male Animal”, at a time when that was a dangerous thing to do. He loved to draw, and was never deterred by everyone telling him he couldn’t. The only thing funnier than his cartoons was the responses he would give people who asked him to explain them.
The war between men and women was one of his favorite themes, and he never spared either side. Everyone was equal in their foibles.
James Thurber, who died in 1962, came to my rescue just the other day. The instrument of his intervention is the story “File and Forget”.
Written as an exchange of correspondence, the plot begins with Thurber sending a shirt back to a mail order company, with an explanation that it is not the shirt he ordered. They write back with an apology for their error, and send him the same shirt in the wrong size. With a miffed tone, Thurber explains that a different size will not solve the problem. Will they please send the shirt he ordered? He receives a letter apologizing again, and stating that to keep his good will, they are sending TWO shirts. Both are the wrong style in the wrong size.
Realizing he is dealing with people unwilling or incapable of sending him the right shirt, Thurber’s following missives go deeper and deeper into the absurd as the clueless company bungles one attempt after another to take control of the situation.
My situation began a little while ago. I was depressed over how unfair life is, and turned to my fellow creative souls for some humor. On the page of one group dedicated to humor sat a “design” equating most men to a feminine hygiene product.
Well, I was just not inclined to bear the insults of Fortunato in silence. I waited until I calmed down, and considered my next step carefully.
I don’t like making formal complaints before attempting informal remedy. I went to the design’s page, and suggested that the shirt would be better on a female cut, as I couldn’t imagine any man finding this humorous.
In retrospect, I cannot imagine why I thought actual communication with this individual would be possible. It’s not really that he has issues so much as that he’s on the third volume of his encyclopedia, and still not within hailing distance of the letter “B”.
His response was that hetero men wouldn’t think it was funny, but others might.
I was taken aback. It was okay because some gays would “get it”?
I abandoned subtlety and asked, “And hetero men are worth insulting?”
Quoth, “If anyone is insulted, that is on them. We are responsible for our own feelings. I take it you won’t be making a purchase then?”
Thurber hated psycho-babble.. And I didn’t like his snarky sarcasm.
But I did not respond in kind. To his inquiry, I simply answered, “No.” I also gave him one of my own attempts at wisdom- “When you blame the gender for the behavior of the individual, you are just not helping”
His response was that it was just a t-shirt, and that I could take it or leave it.
His record remained unblemished by accuracy.
I now had two ugly shirts in the wrong size. My choices were, in fact—
1. Take it.
2. Leave it.
3. Do something about it.
I know. I should have just reported this unpleasant person to RB and have done with it, but the temptation to play “tickle an idiot” was just too great.
Miss Manners has advised that the proper way to rebuff a boorish insult is with the utmost courtesy. Thank the person for their inconsideration.
So I told my opponent that it was refreshing to find one more soul impervious to the feelings of others, and suggested he write a self-help book.
Thurber also hated self-help books. Read “Leave Your Mind Alone”.
He replied that he was not impervious to others, and that was why he had been polite with me so far. Through muffled laughter, I went on to read, “The question is why you feel it necessary to engage me over a little piece of art on a shirt..” (Objection, Your Honor! The prosecution is unwilling to stipulate the evidence as art!) “Could it be you are feeling a little bit guilty for your own behavior?”
That hoary chestnut. Back to psycho-babble.
I confessed. I was feeling horribly guilty that I might have suggested that any problem he had with my postings was entirely his own, and that would be horribly wrong! I apologized.
His next posting was so good I have to comment on it piece by piece.
“I do not give you the power to offend me.” It is not your choice whether or not I have power. It is my choice.
“I did not go out of my way to engage you, but the reverse.”
Yeah. Stand up in the beerhall to yell, “All Germans are bastards”, and blame the brouhaha on the guy named Schultz.
“I refer you to Red Bubble’s Etiquette Guidelines”. Please do. Why not read me the part about no person being subjected to vilification because of gender or sexual preference?
“I’ll accept your ‘apology’..” He accepts my apology. I’m so happy.
“.. but I have to wonder about your motivation for this conversation.” Isn’t it great to be oblivious to cause and effect? He doesn’t care if he pisses someone off and never considers that pissing someone off could result in conflict.
“Have you nothing other to do than harass other people?”
Actually, I wasn’t harassing anyone else. And since he’s in such excellent control of his own emotions, without physical or legal contact, I couldn’t possibly be harassing him.
The thing is, “File and Forget” was a short story. Thurber knew when to wrap it up, and it was time for me to do the same.
I filed a concern with Red Bubble. I also posted this information to my special friend. Mistake.
He told me that now I was going to get it, and that he would leave me with a direct quote from Red Bubble Etiquette. Somehow, he was perfectly capable of understanding what other people are not allowed to do..
Quoth I, “As long as you leave, I am content.” I’m sorry. It’s hard for me to pass up a straight line.
Now he was going to report me to Red Bubble. He had tried so hard to be reasonable. In the interest of Karma, he hoped I’d get exactly what I deserved.
I had to marvel at the man’s ability to stretch ignorance into the Cosmic. Karma means we ALL get what we deserve..
Miss Manners, again. I replied, “Why, thank you!”
Witty, right? Uh uh. Kinda dumb.
If this was to end, someone had to be a grown-up, and I had already fired another salvo. My last posting- “You will obviously continue until you have the last word. You may have it. I will not respond to any more postings.”
If he has three brain cells in his skull, he’ll realize the best way to put me down now is to say nothing. The dipstick would indicate that he’s two and a quarter cells short..
Three things to rap this up.
While I have absolutely no shame about wanting to hoist a villien on his own petard, I regret that I chose Red Bubble’s forum to do so. All I can say in my defense is that at any time my adversary chose to move this to bmail, I would have obliged. Saying you are no smarter than a moron, however, does seem a feeble defense. To my colleagues in a community of artists, I am sorry.
ADDED- I have since realized that I was as much in violation of
Red Bubble etiquette as he was. And, at least as guilty of Jerkhood. I have had the opportunity to see more of his work than I could see then. When he avoids straight-bashing, he can be brilliant.
The whole point I have to make is this—all people are people no matter who or what they are. Anything we do to add another stone to this rocky road we all must walk together is simply not a good idea.
James Thurber taught me that.