Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mark Twain, me and comets

Halley's Comet, 1910; photo Wikimedia Commons.
By Van Brown

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” - Mark Twain

I’m not in awe of Mark Twain as a prognosticator. It’s easy to predict the storm when you can see the clouds rolling in. And you can set your clock by a train if you already see it coming into the station. Sam Clemens knew his health was failing, and that time was running out.

At the advice of his doctor, he’d cut back to ten cigars a day. These must’ve been much smaller and milder cigars than the ones I’m using to orchestrate my suicide. If I tried to smoke ten a day, I wouldn’t be able to talk by the end of a week.

My wife might see some benefit in that, but it would surely stink up the whole neighborhood. Besides, I’m in no great hurry to attain progress in the matter of killing myself. I’m sure the rate is slower than some friends might have predicted, and certainly slower than some enemies might have hoped for, but so be it. As it is, ten cigars might last me a couple of months or longer, as long as February is one of them.

Twain’s comet was predictable, but mine so far has not been. I was born with the Eclipse Comet of 1948 (its proper name for tax purposes being C/1948 V1). It’s hard for me to set my habits to a comet that is so wishy-washy, refuses to be pinned down to an agenda, and considers uncertainty to be a moral principle. I might as well speculate in the commodities market.

It just kind of showed up about the same time I did. I have not been able to find any schedule for its return, and there is no promise that seats will be available for purchase this far in advance. (I hope it’s far in advance, but for all I know for sure, it could be just around the corner.) Some think the comet has an orbit pattern of about eighty four thousand, eight hundred years. If that is so, it’s possible that my calendar could run out first. I’d certainly not try to amortize it, or buy an annuity on such terms. I’ll leave such idiotic financial arrangements to The United States Congress.

One distinguishing feature of a comet is the tail. Such a thing as that does not set either me or Mr. Twain apart from the rest of humanity. What might set us apart instead would be the tales. Without trying to compare them by quality, we’ve both been known to come up with them; his being different from mine, and mine different from his, and together not to be confused with anybody else’s, especially textbook authors.

What do people remember about Mark Twain? For one thing, they remember the stories he told. One that has stuck with me for a long time was about a boy faced with a conflict about doing the right thing. The written rule was for Huck Finn to turn Jim in for being a runaway slave. But as Huckleberry came to terms with Jim’s humanity same as his own, he found his salvation, even though he was certain he’d have to go to Hell for it. Where do we ever such integrity as that even among our bravest adults?

For half a century I’ve thought about that tale, and I could never separate it from Mark Twain himself. So, it’s often the story that brands you, be it sad, funny, or frightful.

What story brands any of us? What story brands you? It isn’t always the easiest thing to know which story is the best one to tell. But after years of looking at the evidence left by hundreds of wonderful writers, I think the best story is the one that nobody but you could’ve told.

That isn’t always the case with a song. Sometimes it will be sung better by someone other than the composer. At other times, the ballad carries better in the arms of the one who knows the tale best. And that is true with a lot of our stories. In many cases, if they are to be told at all, we have to tell them. In spite of that, it sometimes amazes me how many folks wait their whole lives hoping someone else will tell their story for them.

There is nothing wrong with wanting others to tell your story. To get them to want to do that, your story will have to connect with them in some way. But it will have no chance unless you tell it to them, or show it to them. If you don’t think you can put it into words, then put it into actions.

How does your story treat the folks who hear it; see it, or are otherwise affected by it? Do they laugh or cry? In what way are they to carry your story with them? What will make it last? The poet Maya Angelou is credited with saying:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

If that’s the case, perhaps best way to tell your story might be just to live it. If you decide to tell it in words, be sincere about it. If you don’t, the only thing folks will remember will be the insincerity. A moving star with a tail on it might get their attention, but unless it makes them feel one way or another, they just might not remember it at all.

Van Brown has been an actor, director and public speaker in various roles on stage, radio and television.  His notable performances as Mark Twain continue to surprise audiences with unique satire, irony and wit. He lives in the Metro Atlanta area with his wife. They have three grown sons and three grandchildren.

His blog, Van Brown's Journal, is by turns provocative, informative and edifying, and always fun to read. 

Van also portrays Mark Twain on stage and in various events. Find out more at Mark Twain Returns.

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