Light as a feather/Stiff as a board

My name is Franklin P. Smearcase* and I have no idea where to start telling a story.

I’ve been into languages honestly-truly since I was five, but didn’t do much about it ‘til I was a teenager. This doesn’t turn out to be about languages, but if you can bear with me…my cousin and my sister and I were going to spend the summer together and somehow got our mitts on a brochure for the Concordia Language Villages in upstate Minnesota and that was that. I got to tell my grandfather I was going to German Camp. He was Jewish and born in 1909 and so you can do the math and imagine his delight.

Waldsee (“Lake of the Woods” as all the camps are called in the target languages) is sort of a brilliant place in its way, my resounding absence of fond memories notwithstanding. You speak German as much of the time as you can and the counselors are all rosy-faced Midwestern college students with a few native speakers mixed in, and you sing catchy, stupid little songs I regrettably do still remember, and you get a nice kind of exposure to language and culture. If you’re the kind of person who thrives in the atmosphere of summer camp, you also have a swell time, which (you will have discerned) I did not.

Everyone picked a German name as we filed in from the bus and I sort of froze up and said to the woman checking kids in “I don’t know!! What do you think??” (extra punctuation is my panic response) and she said “you look like a Benno to me” which is sort of funny because what the hell does a Benno look like? There is only one remotely famous one** and he was the president of Yale.

Anyway I mostly heard the name in the context of people saying “lighten up, Benno!”

This is the actual topic.

I was introverted, somewhat awkward, not at all comfortable with the kind of male bonding that starts at that age, nascently way too interested in the kind of male bonding that starts at that age, and so freaked out by all of this that I was indeed powerfully uptight.

I showered in those awful communal room-showers at off hours, in swim trunks. I would sort of vanish when conversation turned, as it must among adolescent males, to how fun it was to do a thing I’m sure none of them had done, and it wasn’t even entirely because of the proto-gay thing. I just was too uptight to talk bout sex. I didn’t make dirty jokes or laugh at them or even curse. I didn’t put people in playful wrestling holds. Anyone would have told me to lighten up. Anyone would have made the joke about the lump of coal and the diamond.

But here is the secret: telling someone to lighten up is a powerful speech act. It virtually ensures that the listener will instantly become wildly self-conscious and three times as uptight as before. For much of high school and some of college, I would continue to be told to lighten up. Fairly often. In subtle translations, I sometimes still am.

It isn’t a command is the thing–it’s a statement about the speaker and what he thinks of himself. It’s just that people like me produce some inner state in a certain other kind of person where he or she needs to assert…something, I don’t rightly know what, by pointing out our uptightness.

It wouldn’t be satisfying for the person in question if I were to lighten up. It’s not about that. And of course uptightness can be deceptive. Scratch a prude and, I hardly need say it, you may find someone who is really not who you think he is some small, secret part of the time.

I thought about this as I was stripping down to my underwear to take a run into the Atlantic Ocean after dark one night with people you know. It wasn’t a profoundly transgressive act but Benno sure as hell wouldn’t have done it, when I was him. There’s only one thing that does adjust my attitude healthily toward the “fuck it” end of the dial, and that’s being with people who don’t care if I lighten up and maybe understand and—as I believe both of my companions there did—delight in the fact that it isn’t without cost to tell your superego to fuck off.

*Well, it isn’t, but it is.

**Oh I just thought of Benno Kusche. He’s like [here omit tedious reference to opera] but don’t let’s push the limits of fame.

18 responses to “Light as a feather/Stiff as a board”

  1. The Modesto-Kid equivalent of “lighten up” is “why are you so quiet today?”

  2. Mister Smearcase says:

    I should have added that the only pick-up line that has ever been wielded in my direction was “Whatcha lookin’ so sad for?” As you can imagine, I found this irre-fucking-sistable.

  3. LP says:

    Ich hasste gemeinsamen Duschen auch, und ich einmal für eine Woche ohne Duschen ging im Ferienlager, da war ich auch gedemütigt, nackt zu sein, bevor andere.

    Dies ist ein schönes Essay, und ich bin so froh, Sie schreiben für die große Whatsit!tsit!

    Sorry, I thought it would be funny to google-translate this into German, but now I realize it feels weird to write about communal showers in that language.

  4. Stephanie Wells says:

    I know that “Waldsee” is a fairly common Deutschism to indicate some sort of bucolic idyll, but ach du lieber Gott! if it isn’t a bit close to “Wannsee” for my tastes, especially within the context of you telling your grandfather you were spending the summer there.

    It’s absolutely fabulous to have you on board, and I especially appreciated your illustration of the teal deer, since you taught me only yesterday what it means. FWIW (see how I can talk blog lingo too?), the post was definitely not TL and I DID read. Here’s to having friends who understand the weight of the superego pressing down on the crown of one’s soft little head, and who let it lie there without blaming you for not always being strong enough to shrug it off.

  5. k-sky says:

    I know there’s something Hitlery (Adenauery? History-y.) about it too, but my big association with Wannsee is from 8th grade German: Kristen und Dorle planen ein Ausflug. Wohin sollen wir fahren? sagt Kristen. Auf Wannsee! sagt Dorle.

    Great story, Mr. Smearcase.

  6. JerseyBoy says:

    I liked your post very much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on “lighten up.”

    One of the biggest slaps I remember ever feeling was when my mother said the the teenage me, “you used to be so much fun. What happened?”

    Um, I don’t know, Mom, maybe I decided to stop being your little entertainment unit for an afternoon…

  7. A White Bear says:

    Mr. S and I were discussing this the other night, and I revealed that I, too, unsurprisingly, was one of the kids who got told to lighten up, all the time, until high school. But when people said it to me, it was usually because they were actively bullying me and trying to get me mad. (Apparently me mad is the funniest thing that has ever happened. Seriously, my entire adult life is spent trying never ever to express anger in front of people because it’s soooo hilarious you can’t help but want to see it escalate to violence.) The kids who got all sad and quiet when they were bullied eventually got left alone. But I had (also still have) this weird and completely outsized sense of my own dignity that makes the small embarrassments and insults of life totally intolerable, and inspires people to make them even more embarrassing and intolerable for the fun of it, I guess. Just thinking about my experiences at camp is still enough to send me into a shaking rage.

    But I stopped getting “lighten up” when I went to high school and everyone started to realize that I’m a crazy bitch who occasionally does insane things without blinking. I’ve calmed down quite a bit since its peak in my early 20’s, but I think not being able to “lighten up” has its advantages. People who can’t “lighten up” are the ones who don’t always feel or do, but when we do, we feel things deeply, do things passionately, and don’t apologize for it. The same girl who spent two weeks at camp crying herself to sleep was the one who ran naked into the ocean that night. Maybe a bit of manic risk-taking behavior is the pleasure-giving side of taking life too seriously.

  8. Mister Smearcase says:

    LP, my German never even got to what you’d properly call Intermediate (one of my favorite stories is one of the Algonquin people, I always forget which, went to France and later reported “I discovered once I was there that nobody speaks Intermediate French.”) I totally understood though. Which, factoring in Google-translate, probably still doesn’t speak well of my German.

    Swells, thank you, and it is absolutely fabulous to be had. On board. I figured the teal deer was either amusing or mystifying, and I’m fine with either.

    K-sky I am the unhistoryiest person you know, as like as not, and will have to take your word about Adenaueriness.

  9. swells says:

    Wannsee = the birthplace of the genius idea indelibly known as “The Final Solution.” To be fair, it’s really just the name of a tony, pretty little suburb outside Berlin where the conference happened to be held, but the name is forever tainted, and seeing it innoculously situated on the Berlin S-bahn map makes me a little crosseyed. Of course, Spandau is a stop on the same map, and is also really just the name of a borough, so whaddayagonnado.

  10. Literacy H. Dogfight says:

    Mr. Smearcase, might I inquire as to the derivation of your surname?

  11. lane says:

    this post is so . . . uptight, and psudonynomous and . . . weird, introverted, and perverse and . . . understandable?

    “like”

    and . . . next time take off the underwear!

  12. Mister Smearcase says:

    JB: One of the biggest slaps I remember ever feeling was when my mother said the the teenage me, “you used to be so much fun. What happened?”

    Oh jeez. A million awful responses spring to mind.

    AWB: We have some funny commonalities, you and I. My anger, too, is apparently (alas) fun to watch. It took me a very long time not to fall into this trap. I think the experience of this may have been 90% fury and 10% secret enjoyment of the attention.

    Literacy: Funny about the name…I’ve used it here and there for almost ten years and one person has ever recognized the reference. It almost feels like a shame to give it up, but I will. Throw-away scene in Sullivan’s Travels, the character known only as The Girl (immortally played by Veronica Lake) uses it in a conversation with an imaginary studio exec. It’s Pennsylvania Dutch for cream cheese. And then F.P. sort of came about because I wanted initials. I later realized they were probably an unconscious nod to Franklin Pierce Adams, about whom I don’t know much, but I think he has a rather dashing name. The Round Table folks called him F.P.A., I think, and at some point that stuck in my head.

    lane: it amuses me to think perhaps you are not aware that you know me.

  13. Was it me? I knew it was cream cheese but not the bit about Sullivan’s Travels.

  14. or obv. about Franklin Pierce on the Round Table.

  15. lane says:

    great! sure . . . the internets and all that! . . . u over-thinker u …

    sometimes i wish i had approached TGW pseudonynomously ala FF, TH, CC, AWB, LP, et. al. . . . but i didn’t.

    anyway, . . . oh well, whatever, nevermind.

  16. Mister Smearcase says:

    Modesto, it was K-sky, but you get points, too.

  17. A White Bear says:

    Benno was apparently Erich von Stroheim’s father’s name, FWIW.

  18. A White Bear says:

    (Yes, that says 3:28am. Last night I had one of those nights that starts with, “I wonder if Erich von Stroheim tried to make other 10-hour films before Greed!” and ends with watching Kenneth Anger movies on Youtube until dawn. I have a problem.)