I was deeply moved—and somewhat embarrassed—to read Larry Melton’s encomium for The Syncopated Times (and its hapless publisher). I do acknowledge that the survival of this wisp of a publication for four years, run not on a shoestring but the merest strand of frayed dental floss, is nothing short of miraculous. It is just that I have difficulty admitting agency in its unlikely continuance. Not that I am completely detached from responsibility: I readily take full credit for everything that is wrong with it. All the typographical errors are mine, as well as the bad sentences and lapses in taste. They’re part of my résumé. But I recoil at being congratulated.
I am allergic to praise, and it’s been a lifelong condition. As with most chronic complaints, my reluctance to shine (and to be shone upon) goes back to childhood. The trouble was that I was one of those “smart” kids. I wasn’t insufferably diligent in my application, or even what one would call mildly ambitious. Everything I knew came too easily to me. (In fact, it still does.) The upshot was that I never had to do any of the grind work to sail through elementary school. And I was lauded for this.
Things were different once I encountered higher math and foreign languages. Hurtling face-first into the brick wall of algebra was actually bracing. I had never known the taste of failure, and it had a particular metallic tang, like being punched in the nose by an upperclassman, that I secretly began to relish. Painfully exercising long-atrophied mental muscles, I eventually got the value of x plus y minus 3. But failing was something I could suddenly do—and like all other things I wanted to be good at it.
In high school I failed magnificently. I will not recount the full extent of my career of non-success because it will seem like boasting. Let me just say that I was the anti-Valedictorian. That status entails more than struggling along at the top of one’s game to get by with a D. I had oceans of potential that I cheerfully squandered in my quest for underachievement. I was brilliant at everything that interested me—but so much of what there was to learn did not. I was a National Merit Scholar—and I flunked.
The side effect of my teenage predilection for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is that when I did accomplish a thing by dint of my own applied effort I still didn’t feel worthy. That weird inversion persists to this day. Therefore, I bask in verbal abuse for my shortcomings as if they were the gentlest rays of sunshine. When someone suggests I’ve done something right and good, my inclination is to look over my shoulder to see who they’re talking to.
Admittedly, I’m a train wreck—but a spectacular one. But however incompetent I am willing to own up to being, The Syncopated Times stands unshaken since its inauspicious birth in February 2016. What it may be is that it is that rarest of all things in my life, something larger than myself. (If I met someone larger than myself, I would first ask where he bought pants.) But as a thing, this paper has withstood my abject clumsiness. The truth is, it was always supposed to.
I always tell Larry that I appreciate his support and kindness more than I can find words to say. I do so sincerely. He understands the importance of this publication, and why it must persist even as we slouch toward a world devoid of reliable print journalism—or of print anything. Many periodicals, once august and respected, are now mere fluff. Readers take solace in the dim blue glow of their smartphones.
(It may be that you are reading this essay on your phone. If so, be assured that I would not write it unless it were going to print first. Otherwise, it’s just blogging. And blogging is its own reward—mainly because it doesn’t pay anything.)
I’m happy to publish a paper that has a digital counterpart, because I (mostly) realize this isn’t 1935. There are those who loathe the waste that an ephemeral newspaper represents. From my own point of view, the minuscule number of paper copies I have printed each month is an insubstantial wound on the planet. Nothing would cheer me more than to be a (slightly) greater scourge to the environment. (And I suspect that some percentage of this paper is recycled, so you may renew without feeling too much like a villain.)
Twentieth-century boy that I am, I like holding the newspaper in my hands. But whether you read the version you can later repurpose for the birdcage or whether you partake of its content on something that glows, beeps, and shimmers at you, remember that all media exist precariously in the world and must be supported. Thus far the strand of floss—seeming at times like the merest thread of spider’s silk—has held.
Or it may be that I have held it in place, despite my loud protestations that I am utterly unqualified to do what I have somehow been doing for four years. It’s entirely possible I need to relax and accept the generous tribute Larry has written for me this month. Perhaps I should even take a bow.
As it happens, I think I could possibly manage a slight bow. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.