One Thing & Another

Notes From My Journal: Where Tom Wolfe Got the Title for His First Novel

I always wondered where Tom Wolfe got the phrase “bonfire of the vanities.” On a recent trip to Italy, I found out.

Girolamo Savonarola was a rather “puritanical” Dominican friar who lived in Florence during the Italian Renaissance. He denounced corruption in the church, as well as the evils of secular art and culture. On February 7, 1497, he led his supporters in the first of what they called “bonfires of the vanities.” During these rowdy and popular social events, they burned books, art, musical instruments, and other items deemed “indecent.” What fun!

However, as Savonarola’s influence grew, he made many powerful enemies, including Pope Alexander VI. On May 13, 1497, after an unsuccessful attempt by the pope to win Savonarola over to his side, the friar was charged with heresy and excommunicated. Ten days later, he was hanged and – yes – burned before a mob of less puritanical folks in the Piazza della Signoria, the site of his first bonfire.


Today’s Word: peruse (verb)

To peruse (puh-ROOZ) is to examine carefully and thoroughly. As used by Jonathan Safran Foer in his novel Here I Am: “It sounded cool, as she’d written about it in her diary, which he’d removed from her unattended backpack while she was in gym… and perused – a word that means the exact opposite of what most people think it means.”


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

 “If you ain’t got nothing…”

I bought it to wear at the reception for my second son’s wedding. I won’t tell you what it cost. Let’s just call it stupid.

Something happened in that shop. How can I explain it? I fell into some sort of sartorial love. I was living in a dream.

It was a beige suit of a lightweight, finely woven, woolen fabric. It fit me well. It improved my appearance. It was made by Brioni – an Italian designer/clothier known for being expensive.

I wish I could say that it had a lasting effect. That when I put it on, I have an elevated sense of self-esteem. But the effect has been different.

Knowing that it cost 400% more than my next-best suit, I put it on with a sense of dread.

A voice in my head mocks me:

  • “You know you’re going to ruin it – rip the pants or spill red wine on the jacket. And you’re going to look ridiculous.”
  • “You should have known better.”
  • “Didn’t you learn anything in Africa?”
  • “You don’t deserve this suit.”

So I treat myself to a moment of self-therapy:

You know why you bought it. Your inner child will always be poor. The salesman somehow saw that child and called him forward. He teased him. “This is something you will never have.” You had to protect him, so you stepped in and did it.

Buying the suit gave me a brief moment of validation and exaltation. But now, every time I even think about wearing it, there are those recriminations.

I don’t have this problem with most of my belongings. Only things I feel are too expensive. I don’t even know what too expensive means to me. It is not a term that designates anything related to intrinsic or market value. I have some very expensive things that I don’t have this fear of. It really designates things I’ve bought that I feel are crazy expensive. No, that’s not it. It designates things that for whatever reason I’ve decided I cannot or should not lose.

And this feeling, this recurring dread – it’s not just with things. It’s with people, too. (Will she leave me? Will my kid drown?) And with performance. (Am I going to lose that wrestling match? Am I going to botch that speech?) And with plans. (Will it rain on the big day?)

And, of course, with money. (Will my pension fund go bust? Will the stock market crash?)

I want to pretend I’ve rid myself of this burden, but I am attached to my net worth. My emotional brain does not want to let it go. It fears loss. It fears reduction. So I keep working and earning money even though I don’t want to or need to. I’m not unusual in this respect. I know most people in my position have this problem. But that only makes it worse.

The recriminations…

Is there anything I can do to free myself from these attachments?

I don’t know. Maybe calculate the odds and act accordingly. As in:

What are the chances that someone will steal my watch today? If I’m in Delray Beach in between my home and the office: less than one tenth of one percent. If I’m walking the backstreets of Rio? Considerably higher than that. So I don’t wear a watch in Rio.

But that’s not really a solution, is it?

Another possibility, the tactic I use to deal with all my fears: Imagine the worst case and then imagine myself being okay with it. I call this “making friends” with your fears.

Someone steals the watch and leaves me with my life. I am poorer in watch wealth but richer in wisdom. And I am grateful.

Sort of.

It all comes down to the fear of loss, doesn’t it? Everything comes down to that.

And the fear of loss is just the skin of a deeper existential fear: the fear of death – i.e., the extinction of the ego. (But we’ll talk about that some other time.)

So maybe… yes, maybe, the solution is to relax and let it come. Whatever “it” may be.

Loosen my grip….

Find freedom instead of anguish in letting go.

It’s a lesson that I’ve learned before but apparently have to keep on learning: “If you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”


Fun Fact

If you blowtorch Pepto-Bismol, you will get a hunk of metal.


Worth Quoting

“Most of the change we see in life / Is due to truths being in and out of favor.”

– Robert Frost, The Black Cottage