When I first moved here 15 years ago, Lake Charles had a motto I ran across a lot. The motto was so common it was even painted in big letters all across the big benches lined up one after another for all the poor people who gathered on Bilbo Street to catch buses.
I’m going to let you know up front that I can no longer remember the motto word for word. But I feel certain I can give you the general sense of it.
It was something like, “Moving Forward Together” or “Together, Forward Moving” or “Forward! Let’s Move! Together!” or “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’. Forward” or “Can I Get You To Move? Move Forward? Move With Me Now? Forward? Can You Move Forward Now? With Me? Can We Move Together? Forward.”
Of this much I am 100 percent certain: Whatever the motto was, it contained the word “forward.” I suppose it might have been “Forward! Move!” or “Forward … And Forever Forward” … “Forward! Forward! Keep It Moving Now!” or possibly — POSSIBLY — just “Forward, Forward, Forward.” To repeat: “forward” is the only word I can remember with absolute certainty.
I remember that the presence of the word “forward” made me feel that this motto had a military tone to it. So when I uttered the motto, I appended a military grunt. So, if the motto was, say “Solitary Stationary Forward!” I said it like this:
“Solitary! … Stationary! … Forward! HUH! UHNG! HUH!”
I remember that my way of saying this motto made a lot of people feel very enthusiastic about Lake Charles. I generated lots of goodwill for the city with this manner of pronunciation and emphasis.
I had hardly settled into the city when it was announced that there was a big contest on to change the city motto.
Now I’m not going to write anything about the motto that won the contest — “Cherishing The Past, Embracing The Future.” Why? It’s so damn deep, that’s why. If I’m going to write about that motto, I’m first going to think it over a while and figure out what it means. If I’m going to have to embrace something, it just makes sense that I’m not going to rush right in.
Why am I doing all this writing about mottos in the first place? I’m about to tell you.
I sleep upstairs in my loft, which is really, really dark at night. One night, I woke up at 2 in the morning and decided to go to the bathroom. I walked into said room, and there, lit up like a Christmas tree, was the ghost of Ben Franklin. He gave me a stern look and came out with the following speech:
“Ist possible thou hast consumed a full 56 years of thy life without yet gleaning from thy experience a personal motto by which thou shalt direct the few short years that remain to thee? O most wretched being! Thinkst thou that time, and his companion of most horrible aspect, Death, will wait upon thee until such time as it pleases thee to formulate, at long last, the motto by which thou shouldst have long lived? I tell thee, O slothful Goins, time and Death wait at thy elbow. Even as I speak, they extend their cold fingers toward thee. Postpone no longer. Take heed, O thou most vile and loathsome of Goinses, and mark my warning. When next my spirit encounters thee, have thy personal motto so well set in thy mind that it advances readily to the tip of thy tongue. Shouldst thou fail me in this, look for nothing but trouble from this spirit in the long nights to come.”
He disappeared before I even had time to say, “Well, thanks, I guess.”
As you might imagine, that speech of his inspired me to start trying to think of personal mottos. And I finally came up with six that I think are pretty impressive. Here they are:
1. If you flourish, smell the passage of time.
2. To become a leader of men, first be a leader of clams.
3. To please clams, you have only to lead them.
4. When hell is full, the dead shall walk the earth.
5. Live without dead time.
6. Leadership is 14.3.
As a motto for guiding my life, I think any of those six would do. I realize two are about clams. But they’re both good, solid mottos that shouldn’t be cast aside just because they have overlapping subject matter.
The thing of it is, I’m just not sure that any of these mottos really makes a close fit with life as I have found it. My life seems to have been made up of occasional moments of pleasure or contentment, long stretches of banality and frequent adversities. These different types of experiences come and go in no particular order. One rapidly replaces another.
It’s as if Vanna White is spinning the Wheel of Fortune as fast as she can and never stopping. Or perhaps it’s as if she spins it in one direction, then in another; in one direction, then another; on and on and over and over.
Let me give you some examples of my life of disorderly disruptive constant change. Years ago, I owned a big, old house. I had many good experiences there. I loved to refurbish the inside of the home and care for the lawn and gardens outside. I loved to putter in the basement, wander through the upstairs hallways and stare out the big bay window at the sunset.
But adversity visited me there without invitation or warning. One day I was telephoned at work and told to come home. My house was on fire. As I made my way home, I thought, “Well, why get upset? This makes as much or as little sense as anything else in my life.” I arrived just as the firemen were leaving. It turned out the sheetrock in the kitchen walls had saved the house from complete destruction.
Then there was the outdoor lamp that stood on top of a tall pole. One day I saw that it had been smashed to bits. The police told me it was a hobby of some young people in town to drive around knocking down outdoor lamps with baseball bats. I talked with a contractor and got an outdoor lamp that was even taller and bigger than the previous one. The metal was thick, solid. That lamp, too, was soon smashed to bits. I’d like to see the bat and the person with the strength to accomplish such a great negative work of destruction.
After the third lamp was smashed, I decided to get by without an outdoor lamp.
And then there was the time a drunk crashed through the largest pane of glass in my bay window. It had never occurred to me that it was possible for a human being to walk through such a large, thick pane of glass. This fool did it without even cutting himself. (At least I didn’t see any blood on the carpet.) He explained that he had broken through the pane with an umbrella. World: meet Superumbrella.
It wasn’t enough that this stranger had ruined my bay window. When I told him the people he was looking for were not in my house, he argued with me for 10 minutes. I don’t remember how I eventually got him to leave.
One effect of these occurrences — which had come to seem like everyday life to me — was that my insurance company cancelled my house insurance. For some reason, this made me angry. I made a very impassioned call to the insurance agent. I remember I called him “cruel.” Can you believe it?
Something must have worked, as I eventually got my policy back.
During this time, as the events of this sort were taking place, I often thought of the statement Tristan Tzara made in his “Lecture on Dada”: “Everything happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why everything is equal.”
I think by “equal,” Tzara probably meant something like “equally insignificant.” However, the intellectual effort necessary to clarify the real meaning of “equal” might make Tzara’s statement an awkward motto.
But I think I can find a motto that matches my life as I find it; that matches my notion that adversities spring up like dandelions or mosquitos. I think I can find just such a motto in the well-known line from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five:
Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.
On the other hand, I think I could also make a perfectly good motto out of the following: