The Nervous System

I’m poetically intrigued by this evocative title: Observations of the Transit of Venus, an account by H.C. Russell of the rare astronomical phenomenon. The illustration above shows Professor Liversidge's observations of the processes of egress and illumination on planet during the transit of Venus, 9 December 1874.

Here’s a French cartoon of a previous earlier transit.


Out my window in this late afternoon I see delicate new green leaves on all the treetops as we begin another week of our local lockdown retreat. This past week I’ve been thinking about nurturing the autonomic nervous system, helping bring balance and calm through the awareness of breath, deep breathing and all that. Today’s issue is a flight of my imagination as I think about sustaining the nervous system while influenced by watching old movies on the Criterion Channel.


Don’t Become a Bundle of Nerves

There used to be something called “nerves” and people became “nervous”. They might suffer because these pesky nerves could build up into a “nervous exhaustion”. For example, an author might go to the seaside and take a “rest cure”.

An advertising man like Jack Lemmon could have nerves, and some of them would lead to nervous tics, nervous speech or movement. That would be the stuff of comedy. Or if it were a serious drama, Burt Lancaster would reveal his nerves, the nerves of the boss, by having an ulcer, requiring milk or even cream with his expensive whiskey. That, too, could be the stuff of comedy. Remember, an ulcer was considered a sign of paying your dues and getting ahead in the world, a byproduct of ambition and hard work.

And then the poor midwest folk, kind and generous and not so subject to nerves. They would just be guileless, and dumb. They could get it wrong every time, but have some sort of innate folk wisdom.

Aunt Bee had all the qualities that could calm the entire neighbourhood, but even she could sometimes get “flustered” in situations caused not by her but by those kooks or someone from the city, or by an action based on misunderstanding. The mail order catalogue must have got mixed up; someone sent her some strings that looked like a polka dot bikini instead of the new apron she’d ordered for the church bake-off. Boy, was she flustered, trying to use that as an apron anyways! (Just in case you’re wondering, Aunt Bee never married. Beside her bed she has a photo of a young sweetheart in a uniform, and she keeps a worn cigar box in the dresser drawer with some mementos from when she went to secretarial school in town.) She never had an ulcer, and she wasn’t nervous. Her letters to family in the next county were always about the weather, with a few gentle comments about the doings of the boys.

But you see, she didn’t ever really exist. And that advertising man, worried and over-excited, a comic character with a tragic trajectory - ie. the boss will fire him after a series of madcap mixups but he’ll be saved at the last minute by the boss’s daughter, or a girl from the secretarial pool, or the perfume girl in the department store, someone who has no clue but a pretty face, someone with a heart of gold trying to make it in this crazy town, or in the case of the boss’s daughter, someone who wants out of the rat race so she can make a difference. The heiress to the family fortune might pretend to be a shopgirl to find true love.

The problem with nerves is that they don’t go away, they race around through the body making a person into a puppet and the nerves are the strings.

Nervous exhaustion was ultimately romantic. It meant time walking along the seashore, afternoon naps, healthy food and good books. Nothing too strenuous and soon you’re back on track, good as gold. But if the scene darkens, worse than nervous exhaustion comes a big wave from behind: they called it a nervous breakdown. The Rolling Stones identified 19 of these - or at least the 19th. A breakdown meant the men in the van, with white coats, taking you away and then the shock of return, having lost six months and no memory of it. Just a couple of card games in the sun room with the others.

Why am I saying all this? Because it is time to strengthen our nerves.

Put down that White Russian and ask Aunt Bee to roll out the pastry for another pie. Watch her go, with that mixed-up bikini on top of her printed housedress, humming a tune as a strand of hair keeps falling from her topknot to catch in the corner of her mouth. She’s never smoked a day in her life and she always gets a good night’s sleep.

Jack Lemmon pulls on the door that says “push”, fumbles his keys, and stays awake all night trying to come up with a slogan for the popcorn laxative account. Chain-smoking Burt Lancaster won’t stand for it. His father knew he’d come to no good, even if he inherited the button firm and converted it to a successful ad shop, the best in town. His ulcer is a badge of honour. He takes another sip of cream and whiskey before turning off the lights in the office. “Send my car,” he barks into the beige dicta-speaker-phone thing.

“Whatever happened to that nice man you met last year?” Aunt Bee asks no one in particular as you take a bite of pie. But the pie is dusty and awful and she has bright rouge on her cheeks, looking even more clownish than before. Her hat is on, the bikini apron is off, and she’s busy, going places, doing things. “Just turn the lights off when you leave,” she says as the screen door flaps shut behind her. “I didn’t even know she could drive,” you think as the engine revs.

Aunt Bee and Burt Lancaster must have been tipped off that the emptiness of their backstories left the door wide open for the zombie apocalypse and all that crashing.

A stranger on the street corner watches Jack Lemmon still pacing in his apartment. He’s been at it all night. “I’ve got it!” he jumps up and down in his striped pyjamas, then steps back, rubs his chin saying, “No, not quite.” And gulps another coca cola straight from the bottle, idly opening and closing the slats of his venetian blinds. It looks like it might be a signal, SOS or something. But the stranger can’t help, he’s waiting for a call at the payphone.

Back at the darkened ad office, a lone cleaner is dancing to music on her portable radio, dumping out the half-finished drinks and over-full ashtrays, dusting the rows of vinyl typewriter covers in the secretarial pool.


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