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MARTHA SEZ: A visit to the idea factory

July 8, 2011
People sometimes ask me, “Isn’t it hard coming up with a subject for a column every week?”

The answer is, “Yes and no.”

It wouldn’t be so hard writing a column if some people didn’t expect me to entertain them at the same time, while also being accurate and agreeing with them.

“Quit writing about insects!” some readers urge. “What’s with the cluster flies? You are wasting your life writing about your personal views on earwigs.”

Oh, that reminds me — I saw my first Japanse beetle today. I killed it. It was in one of my Therese Bugnet roses.  (Therese Bugnet is French, and doesn’t really mean bug net.)

I must say, I have never cared much for criticism, constructive or deconstructive or destructive or instructive — any kind of structive. Why do these people even bother to read Martha Sez, knowing, as they must, that I will never write about anything of compelling interest to them, or, if I do, I will never get it right?

Scientists have known about the physiological effects of stress for quite some time. Take, for example, the following excerpt from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Complete Home Medical Guide:

“During the late 1950s, Dr. Selye subjected experimental animals to a variety of stressors, such as starvation, extreme heat and cold, or surgery. In each case, he noticed the same syndrome: A reaction of alarm, followed by an adaptation phase and, if the stress continued, eventual exhaustion and death. ‘No living organism,’ he wrote, ‘can exist continuously in a state of alarm.’”

Other people, not scientists, have realized all of this since the dawn of time, without having to resort to the torture of caged animals to find it out. To me, Dr. Selye sounds a little cold-blooded.

 Be that as it may, in the famous Social Readjustment Rating Scale published in 1967 by Holmes and Rahe, life stress events are rated according to severity. “Death of a spouse” heads the list with a mean value of 100 points, “divorce,” following directly after, rates 73, and “Christmas” trails way down the list with a mere 12. “Trying to keep up reader interest in weekly column” did not, I admit, make the list, due to some oversight on the part of social scientists of the Sixties. Were it on the list, however, I would give it about a 40 or 50.

Because I cannot live in a continuous state of alarm — Dr. Selye says — although I seem to — today I am going to try to please those readers who complain about my subject matter, in hopes that they will give me a break and get off my back.

Um, let’s see. I know a lot of people like sports. I almost never mention sports, and then only to complain. So here is a quote from a beautifully illustrated and thoughtful book, titled “Baseball,” by Vincent Scilla.

“Baseball is all clean lines and clean decisions. ... Wouldn’t life be far easier if it consisted of a series of definitive calls; safe or out, fair or foul, strike or ball. Oh, for a life like that, where every day produces a clear winner and an equally clear loser, and back to it the next day with the slate wiped clean and the teams starting out equal.”

—Eric Rolfe Greenberg

I must say I agree with Mr. Greenberg. So there’s baseball out of the way.

Seeking out the universals, local gossip seems to interest everyone, including me, but it isn’t easy to write about when you live in a small town. Not, at any rate, if you plan on continuing to live there. For one thing, almost none of it is true, if you’re going to get all touchy and precise about it. I have noticed that the most interesting parts, the very details upon which the best stories rely, tend to be fabrications, even outright lies. Even if I were to invent a story, using made-up names and places, people would still see themselves or their blood relations in it and take umbrage. More stressful criticism.

You may ask, “Why, since you’re supposedly a journalist, don’t you just go straight to the source of the egregious lies?” If you ask this, you are naive. No one would ever tell me anything again, not to mention the other repercussions. I would probably go into a state of alarm, followed by an adaptation phase, and eventual exhaustion and death.

Have a good week.


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