Something to push against

The author at the gym
Image: Huff
Person in the Image: Huff

Yeah that’s me and no I’m not doing Bane cosplay. It was just the best flu mask I could find before I headed to the gym.

After I had COVID earlier this year something went to work in my brain. Something that’s always been part of me. Best example: Sophomore year in college, late spring, and we were all dreading Music History. That was next up, all junior music majors required to take it. A band guy, brass player whose name I’ve forgotten but I still remember he looked like the Big Boy restaurant mascot but with serial killer glasses and a cheesy ‘stache, looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Don’t worry about Professor Olsen’s class”—the name of that year’s music history prof—“No one passes it the first time.”

The guy wasn’t being a jerk. He was sincere. Yet some alchemy just happened to take place in my brain right then, some combination of moment, mood, mindset. I said, “No one? Ever?”

”Far as I know.”

I took that as a personal challenge. Something to push back against.

Here is the silliest part: I was generally not a great academic student. I majored in music, vocal performance, and I lived for being onstage. I memorized my music early and diligently, always fulfilled my obligations as a singer to the hilt. But a lot of the academic side of music bored me. I was a low B student, basically.

Yet I decided then and there to be one of the best scholars Professor Olsen ever lectured, with his permanent handkerchief held to one side of his permanently leaky left nostril. I did it in anger. I was mad that anyone would dare lump me in with the masses of students in previous years and in years to come.

Junior year rolled around. I was in the class with two of the smartest people I knew, the woman to whom I was engaged at the time and the woman I would break up with her for and end up married to for 8 years. (I get horny for brainy people but refuse to ever use a term like “sapiosexual,” it just sounds…pathological.)

Both young women (52 and 54 today) were dedicated students in general and both were superb writers with razor-sharp, incisive minds. Both had already helped me limp through previous courses we took together. I feel bad about that today but at the same time, it would be 10 more years before I was diagnosed with ADHD.

I did not feel competitive, exactly, with either, but I did decide I would make better grades in this famously writing-heavy music history course than they did. On one hand, I look back today and that’s totally manic. An observer who knew all three of us might have laughed if I’d said that out loud.

I proceeded to do exactly that. At the end of junior year, Professor Olsen told me I was “the most incisive historical mind” he’d taught there, one of the finest writers, and cut out to practice law (he was, oddly, also an attorney). He had no idea what a shitty student I’d been and would be again in the future. And he might have been right about the law, I wondered myself. But just opening the LSAT study book made my eyes cross, so maybe not.

Anyway, I’m indulging myself here, but there is a point—I have frequently shocked myself by accepting a challenge no one even issued just to prove I can conquer it if I want. I remember every one, but the story of music history is the one that I often reflect on.

Sometimes I think catching COVID hit me a bit like that brass player’s laconic challenge. I came out of it saying to myself that I would respect the fact I survived the virus by completing a mission I began in earnest at 44: Making my aging body as ironclad as possible against whatever aging and life throws my way. I don’t have the natural energy to try and get superhuman with it, but now I feel like I did heading into that first history lecture junior year: weirdly assured I can accomplish the vaguely ridiculous goal I have in mind.

I don’t reject aging, that’s not it at all. In fact, since I turned 40 aging has been kind of, well, fun sometimes. I joke about it, but the truth is, I’m strangely proud of already making it this far.

That is, making my body “ironclad” isn’t about reversing the clock of my skin, fading spots or filling wrinkles. It is about making the man the age I am now as strong as he can be.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I may get there.

The Sad Death of Selfie

The St. Paul (MN) Appeal, August 8, 1891
The St. Paul (MN) Appeal, August 8, 1891

With this history post I stray for a moment from stuff that happened (or was reported, at least) “100 years ago today.”

Sometimes I search the Library of Congress’s archived historic newspapers for current buzzwords. This morning, with no expectation of finding an accurate result, I searched “selfie“–one of the most irritating, ubiquitous terms related to internet-based phenomena pretty much ever.

Look, I’ll even use the word because it’s in common use and can sometimes be useful shorthand (I accidentally wrote “sharthand” and almost left it). The moment newscasters and media personalities began using, making and talking about selfies (self-portraits usually made with smart phones, but you didn’t really need me to tell you that) the word became exquisitely irritating. In its current form “selfie” is a buzzword worthy of a terrible and brutal demise. I used to think if the word “selfie” was a person, I would want to punch him or her repeatedly. (/rant).

Anyway, damned if this morning’s search didn’t turn up a result. The poem in the screengrab above is about the death of a “Selfie.”

Selfie was a person. Selfie Harris, who died very young in August, in the year of our Lord, 1891. From the St. Paul, MN Appeal, published August 8, 1891:

On Saturday, July 25th, while Selfie Harris, a lad of 16 years, was out bathing with several companions, he got too far out into the current and was drowned. Selfie was a bright boy and in him had his parents centered high hopes for his future; but death would not spare him; but with his unerring sythe (sic) cut this bud just before it burst into a lovely flower. Mr. Harris is proprietor of the Hevalow Cottage and now the usually pleasureful Cottage is enrapt in a fog of sorrow.

The poem at the beginning of the post followed the brief article. Online historical records of this Harris family are few, if any, after this notice.

A search for “Selfie” as a first name on Ancestry.com, however, yielded 32 results in censuses taken between 1910 and 1940. Many are actually names like “Sophie,” difficult to read because the census was handwritten, but a few people were clearly named “Selfie,” after all. There was Selfie W. Carpenter in the 1910 Census, wife to A.M. Carpenter of Anderson, SC. In the 1940 Census for Phillips County, Arkansas, I found one Selfie Matthew Moore, married to Alice. And on June 5, 1917, a man named Selfie Summers registered for the draft in Independence, Kansas.

All of which is to say–before it become such an irritating term, moment, movement–whatever–“Selfie” was a legitimate proper name. Not all that archaic, either–I found an obituary for pastor Selfie Borom, who passed away in October, 2011.

Young Selfie Harris’s death in 1891 was a tragedy. So was Pastor Borom’s. I wouldn’t want to punch anyone with that name.

No, my research on the word has led to a new cause: wanting to punch people in the media droning on about the term “selfie,” how it’s a trend, about what it says about Who We Are Now.

I don’t want to do it for me. I want to do it for all the real Selfies, the people who bore that name, who have gone before.