Read Old Man Scanlon

Thin Ice

31 March 2018

Awash in the noise and bile of the Twitter serendipity machine an Emerson quote caught my eye. “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” A pearl of peculiar luster, this raised questions beyond the obvious one of sketchy internet quote provenance. I wouldn’t—couldn’t, through plain lack of familiarity—have identified it as Emerson. Though it is, in fact, I was still curious. Does Emerson entertain the same definition of surface as the rest of us? Perhaps he dismisses as superficial what’s deep to mortals. Perhaps surface is a defense against depth. Is this mot a little highbrow, a little facile? Perhaps it’s been isolated to ill effect; does it ring truer in context? Even if it were possible to devote a life to it, wouldn’t surface skimming become boring?

For all its seductiveness, this idle speculation does not lead me to answers. I need to read the whole of “Experience,” but I rue how soft I’ve become. A near-freezing day in April offends me as a personal insult. A pitiful attention span hamstrings my youthful lust for reading. I quail before 10,000 words of Emerson, his style, his scope. A prospect I’d have once found ravishing daunts me, and only an ornery perverseness goads me to endure it. If it doesn’t kill me it will make me stronger.

When I came to read “Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping if it were not” I thought, Ah, there’s a cliché I can get behind. Surface skating becomes a lot less boring when you encounter the occasional unforeseen beer bottle on the metaphorical ice. Though it carries the unfortunate pejorative connotations of superficiality, even in the absence of surprises surface skating isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Reading Emerson has somehow increased my susceptibility to surprises—now that I realize I’m on skates—or at least decreased my obliviousness to them. As I accrue years and spend more time with my doctors than I do with the Transcendentalists, it’s probably inevitable that a doctor would surprise me.

I’m not surprised when an unforeseen diagnosis shifts the surfaces on which I skate, sometimes toward the abyss, sometimes away, and I’m not surprised at God-like knowledge, guarded against the barbarians by a technical and dead-language-based jargon. But I am surprised to learn at long last that a doctor I’ve seen for decades photographs nature when he’s not caring for diabetic eyes. I am surprised when I notice now, after thirty years, as if for the first time, as if their essence had become visible, the hands of my cardiologist. My curiosity, sputtering recently, insists I pay attention to these micro-epiphanies. They are proofs—of a mathematical clarity, not that any proof should be necessary—that these two doctors are multi-dimensional surface-skating humans, and I have discovered it.