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A Stage for the Air Violin


Let me say right off that it is very easy for self-pity to make itself heard around here.

Very easy. And pretty damn hard, sucka.

To illustrate: No matter who you are and where you live, bad things have happened to you lately. Your brother-in-law is sleeping on your sofa. Your oak tree in the front yard is drooping. Your parakeet has stopped singing. Your fishing camp is missing a key piling.

Consider these things en masse, and you'll find yourself brushing away a late-night tear.

And yet, witness these three guys coming together for some reason and each in turn making a small bid for a small dollop of self-pity:

Sad Sack: The salt water from Katrina killed half of the green grass on the playground near my chalet, and now we can't have Easter egg hunts for our uber-intelligent children because the Snickers are easily spotted in the yellow stubble.

Sadder Sack: Don't be such a crybaby. I lost the entire family scrapbook collection, including the only existing photograph of Granny Porche. Plus, a baseball autographed by Don Matingly and my second-place trophy for 11- and 12-year swimming.

Saddest Sack: Get over it. I lost two cars, my brand new riding mower, my home, my vacation home and my wire-haired terrier, Earl. Oh yeah, and my paw-paw. His name was Earl, too. We named the dog for him. His birthday was Aug. 29.

Thus, the ground for sowing the seeds of self-pity has never been more fertile than it is now -- and never more barren, either.

This is all of some concern to me because I am a longtime advocate of self-pity and ever on the lookout for things that may affect its rise or fall.

Let me assure you, this is not an easy task. It has become axiomatic that one must renounce self-pity in all its forms if one hopes in any way to become a fully accepted member of the community. Consider this modest verse by D.H. Lawrence:

I never saw a wild thing

sorry for itself.

A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough

without ever having felt sorry for itself.

So here we have what is clearly a tribute to a tiny animal, and why? Because it has behaved in a way that is often the way of human beings. What logic is there in this judgment? I never saw a wild thing write a Petrarchan sonnet, perform CPR, or recite a poem by D.H. Lawrence, for that matter. There is no blame attached to this, any more than credit should go to tiny avians for showing a stiff upper beak in icy climes.

But it's undeniable that feeling sorry for yourself is a sure way to win the ire of those around you. Get caught feeling sorry for yourself and you will have one more reason to feel sorry for yourself. You will now be scorned for self-pity.

It is a bit ironic that if, say, our baby-sitter flunks algebra, loves her significant other and selects a poor haircut, we feel empathy. We click our tongues and shake our heads slowly and sadly. We may tenderly put a hand on her shoulder, even offer to go for a walk or participate in some squishy conversation. Do some or all of those things, and you will be praised. You might be accused of having compassion and even showing it.

Now take a slide-step to the left. Let's say that you are the one who flunks something, loves somebody, looks bad. You feel as morose as you would if all these things had befallen your baby sister. You cluck your tongue and shake your head slowly and sadly. You go for long walks or put your hand on your own shoulder.

And what is the public reaction to all this? You are accused -- perhaps to your own face, certainly behind your back -- of wallowing -- wallowing! -- in self-pity. You are mocked and the mockers throw old Gambits and Hershey's Kisses wrappers at you.

It is doubly ironic that this all comes at a time and place when squishiness of all kinds is everywhere.

Wherever you go nowadays, even figures of awesome obscurity seem to think their most personal secrets are somehow of interest to the rest of us. So, any chance they get, culminating in The Jerry Springer Show, they spill out these secrets and we are supposed to applaud their candor. Even if we could care less that a lack of attention from Mama's brother stunted the confessor's emotional growth and led to his carnal knowledge of a garden hose.

Just don't come across as full of self-pity. Tell us your troubles in the right way and we'll give you all the pity you could hope for.

All this came on my radar screen because I was standing around with some guys the other night and one of us was giving most of the gruesome details of his most recent divorce. Suddenly, one of his listeners held up an air violin and pretended to play a dirge full of drama. Everybody laughed because in the old days, this was the common signal that we were taking a bath in self-pity.

Myself, I've always thought self-pity got a bad rap. It's an easily affordable amusement and doesn't actually require much of bystanders, other than a slight skill at seeming slightly interested and maybe some dexterity with an air violin. It imparts a look of urgency to the face, melancholy to the eyes and boyish charm to the voice. Self-pity sometimes makes its listeners uncomfortable because it reminds them how susceptible all humans are to this disease. But it's an indulgence we all need, and who knows how unfair life has been to us better than us? Besides, if properly rationed, chicks dig it.

Oh well. What can you do? I expect to catch some grief for saying all this. When you stand up for self-pity, you gotta expect some flack. I'm used to flack. I've lived with flack all my life. Night and day, day and night. Pain. Plenty of pain.

(Air violinist enters from Stage Right. Music up.)


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