June 4, 2009

Cary Tennis, Salon.com’s advice columnist, may be the wisest person who has ever lived. I read his columns every once in a while but lately I’ve been looking back through his archives and it’s really astonishing. If you don’t know his work, go over there and take a look.

Here is a recent example. I mean, is this man not amazing?

Dear Cary,

All my life I have been trying to grow webbed feet.

It seems my willpower is not strong enough, or perhaps my shoes are interfering with the necessary concentration.

Should I switch to growing webs between my fingers?

Aquatically Challenged

Dear Aquatically Challenged,

This morning I have been reading Dylan Thomas, who had webbed feet. How he grew them has been lost to history since he died at such a young age. But one imagines that the poet, focused as he was on achieving the impossible, grew them through prayer and chanting, through excess and monasticism, through worship of words and revery and fearless surrender to their ecstasy. He grew them through constant study of the masters, through copying out in his crabbed and insecure longhand the works that inspired him, through blinding himself to reality and focusing only on what he dreamed, through drinking into the late, wee hours, through channeling his birthright and nationhood and ancient soil-bound spirit.

We imagine such things as becoming poets and kings and growing webbed feet or wings and it is to our credit that we do; in imagining them we encounter the oldest philosophical problems of power and matter and transubstantiation: How can my blood become wine or vice versa, how can this base metal become gold, how can my words become birds, my voice a hurricane, my eyes like stars, my shoulders trees? How can this be done? How can this adolescent become a man? How can this seed become a child? Some of these things are doable and others not, and why? How can I transform with a few drops of whiskey this dim and quiet bar into a festival of souls unleashed? How to make this piano into a dancing girl?

Each of us desires a different impossibility but we all seem to fervently desire the impossible. What is it about the impossible that makes it so precious? As a young boy I lay on the floor of the porch trying to lift myself to the ceiling; day after day I concentrated on levitating; one reads about levitation in comic books and sees vivid pictures of it; one reads about masters of levitation in books; one sees levitation on television; one is told that it isn’t real but one doesn’t know whom to believe when one is young; one is lied to so often anyway. One knows they lie just to shut you up. So many have probably told you that you cannot grow webbed feet. But perhaps you can. I did not learn to levitate but today I can sometimes rise above the ground and float for a few seconds; I can stay above things; I can get off the ground. No one knows this but me of course. I appear to be always on the ground, which is all to the best, considering. One learns, also, to keep these wishes secret lest you be scorned and laughed at or examined by ungenerous clinicians.

Long concentration on a goal however illusory and impossible may bring fruit, if not literally the fruit you desire. You do not order up your fate. You do not create yourself. You are made and in being made must crawl on your belly because the order in which the gifts are handed out is not up to you; if you can accept that fact, then crawling can be an ecstasy of surrender to what is real and what is given and what is possible at this moment. If you cannot accept that then of course they call you too big for your britches, and no pants ever fit you. You go through life beeping at everyone. Likewise, though they may be just baby talk, those first few words you speak may be an ecstasy of accomplishment and an offering of gratitude to those who gave you life. Your toes, too, are a miracle; consider their plumpness, their surprising dexterity. (No better word could exist, etymologically speaking.)

Sure, you joke, and I joke too, I joke with you, and yet I see in your joking something you walk home with still wishing for, something you do not even dare to say: That you do wish for something beautiful and impossible, something given to other species, and in wishing thus you are like all of us, beset and crushed and cursed with imaginings beyond our size and skill; we wish to build airplanes and then climb aboard and fly; we wish to swim across vast oceans; we wish to compete with ducks and fish; we wish to have something no one else has. We wish to write grand books and die young and be worshiped and have folk singers name themselves after us, and thus to spawn whole generations.

Sit and wish for this. Wish for it for hours. Fix it in your mind as you sit. Imagine it. Dream it. Rub special cream on your toes. Eventually, through the sheer force of the mind’s concentration, something will appear at least for an instant, something that was not there before; it might be a new species of salamander crawling away on a rock; it may be a crow that settles on a branch and speaks to you, saying in its guttural mobster voice, “Web feet, web feet.” It may be that in wishing for this you attain what you unknowingly want, the thing for which your wish is a code name; it may be that in wishing for it you simply sit long enough for the puzzle to unravel, and that will be your reward.

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4 Responses to Cary Tennis, Salon

  1. Mike B. says:

    Cary’s predecessor as advice columnist was Garrison Keillor.

    ‘Nuff said.

  2. Mike B. says:

    Also: I’m consistently stunned by the level of detail people provide in their letters. They do realize that they’ll be immediately recognized, right?

  3. Lynn in Tucson says:

    Damn. That’s good.

    Not nearly so lyrical but I think Carolyn Hax is pretty good, too.

  4. Justin says:



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