Tim Kreider's essay collection We Learn Nothing (Free Press) takes the cartoonist's wit across subjects like his near-fatal neck stabbing and his delusional uncle's knack for heinous crime. In this excerpt, Kreider’s mother is hospitalized for a month after suffering septic shock and he sits with her reading aloud from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to pass the time.
Once we’d accepted that nothing was ever going to happen in Tristram Shandy, our expectation that anything ought to have started to seem stodgy and humorless. It turned out to be very much in the tradition of the silly plotless films Mom and I had always enjoyed—or, rather, they turn out to have been in its. Tristram Shandy flouts its obligations as a novel in the same way that Blazing Saddles and Airplane! mock the whole idea of being a movie. Sterne affects to lament his resolute lack of progress: “Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?” he sighs after Walter Shandy and his brother Toby have in fact spent a whole chapter getting down one flight. In the next chapter, Walter takes a single step down the next staircase, which almost makes you want to cheer, but he hesitates there and starts another conversation—and then, agonizingly, he actually backtracks, withdrawing his foot from the stair and walking all the way back across the landing to lean against the wall. You can’t help but laugh at this, even if it’s with that grudging admiration that says: Ahh, you bastard. But the conversation that Walter and Toby have on the landing, about women and pregnancy, is one of my favorites in the book. It’s as if Sterne were saying, Now wasn’t that worth waiting for? And you were in such a rush. He never does get them off the staircase; in the end, he leaves it up to the reader and even inquires, all innocent curiosity, how you managed to do it.
A physical therapist showed me how to help my mother climb stairs—a slow, laborious, two-feet-per-step procedure, painstaking as rock climbing. I had to remain a step below her, holding her elbow, ready to catch her in case she fell. Mom had recovered sufficiently to be moved to a hospital with a physical therapy program, where she would regain enough mobility to live independently again. She described herself as “something of a star” in physical therapy. “Apparently they don’t see a whole lot of people who’re in as good shape as I am,” she said. The therapist also demonstrated how to help Mom get in and out of cars, a meticulous swiveling operation that kept her center of gravity directly over her feet. She showed us strategies for getting things out of the fridge or down off shelves, and suggested rearrangements of furniture for maximum convenience and economy of motion. We were like astronauts training for zero-g underwater: the simplest tasks had to be thought out, planned, and orchestrated, performed in slow motion and taken (literally) step by step.
I’m an impatient person. I take stairs two at a time; I can’t stand getting trapped behind a phalanx of schoolkids or tourists on the sidewalk; a computer taking seven seconds to perform some operation is maddening to me. I hate all the boring in-between parts of life. Seeing my mother barely able to rise from a sitting to a standing position unaided, or shuffling slowly from the bed to the bathroom, made me furious for reasons I could not understand. Watching her tug feebly at some plastic packaging, I wanted to rip it open for her; waiting as she groped for a word, I had to restrain myself from yelling it. Since middle age Mom’s taken longer and longer to retrieve proper nouns—the first words we learn and, she advises me, the first to go—but now the waits were getting excruciating.
She and I had a history of conversations in which she would switch topics without any sort of signaling segue, and we would continue talking, unbeknownst to us, about two different things, the dialogue becoming increasingly Ionescan until we’d stop and stare at each other in bafflement and have to backtrack to the point where we’d diverged. The most famous of these had conflated the repair of my car with the completion of the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, yielding what seemed to both of us like really unreasonable time and cost estimates. (It was not unlike the misunderstanding occasioned by Uncle Toby’s shocking offer to show Mrs. Wadman “the very place” where he received his war wound, resolved only when he produces a map.) But when we had another of these exchanges in the hospital, I wasn’t so amused. I probably don’t have to tell you that getting mad at your own mother for being old and sick does not make you feel like a model son or exemplary human being. Getting irritated at my own irritability did not improve matters. It made me only a little more forgiving of myself to understand that my anger was mostly fear.
I wonder whether this same fear isn’t beneath our twenty-first century intolerance for waits and downtime and silence. It’s as if, if we all had to stand still and shut up and turn off our machines for one minute, we’d hear the time passing and just start screaming. So instead we keep ourselves perpetually stunned with stimuli, thereby missing out on the very thing we’re so scared of losing. Sterne’s stairway is a perfect metaphor for all those tedious interstitial moments we can’t wait to get through that make up most of our lives; we don’t even think of stairways as places in themselves, only as a means to get somewhere else. I remember children’s stories about kids who were granted the power to effectively fast-forward their lives, skipping all the homework and chores to get right to the good parts—driver’s license, girlfriend, being a grown-up. Inevitably, they ripped through their whole lives in no time and found themselves suddenly old, looking back on a blank, elided lifetime without even memories to show for it. We’re all so eager, both in life and in art, to get past this bullshit to the next Good Part up ahead. Believe it or not, Sterne’s telling us, this bullshit is the good part. As my friend Lauren had told me, I know this seems like a drag, but I promise you, someday you will be grateful you had this time with your mother. All those digressions were the story. With his tortuous nonplot Sterne’s trying to tease us out of our insatiable impatience for narrative, our silly urgency to know What Next. In effect, he’s saying, Relax. What’s your hurry? We’ll get there soon enough—all too soon, in fact. And once we arrive, the fun will be over. So why not enjoy the company? He knows that all journeys, and all stories, have the same ending, at a place nobody wants to go.
Adapted from WE LEARN NOTHING: Essays and Cartoons by Tim Kreider. Copyright 2012 Tim Kreider. Excerpted by permission Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.