Moment of Inertia

          Without quite realizing it, over the past dozen years I’ve been training my body to automatically close my office door with the ideal amount of effort, imparting the exact momentum for the task. I should clarify. I swing the door shut as I’m leaving, aiming for the sweet spot, the gentle click, with nary a harsh slam and ne’er a miss, because, in this harried age, who has time to pause and hold the handle all the way, or, worse, to return to finish the ajarring job? My timing had become impeccable. As I’d sling on my backpack and slide out the door, I’d reach back with my left hand, catch the handle, and, without breaking stride, flick slightly towards me. I’d not even turn back; I’d just hear the satisfying kiss of snug contact and know that I’d left my things locked safely inside.

          Grammarians such as myself may have noticed the verb tense in the previous sentences, especially “had become,” which says more than it denotes, I think. Why, we must ask, is the narrator’s timing no longer impeccable? What trouble do these tenses portend?

          [As an essay classicist, I often claim to be allergic to drama, suspense, all the trickery of a writer’s sleight of hand, and yet I must realize, too, that such is inevitable, if only in its purely grammatical forms.]

                    “Most of the occasions for the troubles of the world are grammatical.”
                              — Montaigne “Apology for Raymond Sebond”

          Speaking of Montaigne, it’s his fault. That my door no longer closes all the way, that in the past weeks, I’ve repeatedly heard no click, had to stop, turn around, and thrust my hand back to the handle to close the door firmly and finally. I’d calculate that I’ve lost a good minute of quality time, all told.

          It’s Montaigne’s fault, I realized (after several confused days discovering that, then wondering how, I’d lost the touch), because I’ve got a Montaigne costume hanging on the back of the door. For years it wasn’t there, but now it’s there, so I’ve added weight to the door, thereby increasing its moment of inertia.

          “Moment of Inertia” is the title of this essay, so now I’ve partially resolved that little (perhaps unformed) question you may have been carrying since you started reading. The object of the detective’s quest you unwittingly set out upon begins to clarify. At the very least, you know to pay attention to the phrase. Perhaps you recall, from physics class, that “moment of inertia” describes a body’s resistance to angular acceleration. The “inertia” part echoes Newton’s first law of motion: “An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” More popularly, we think of inertia as immobility, stagnation, idleness, or at least resistance to motion. It is something to be overcome. The “moment” in the phrase refers to the product of a force acting at a distance from a reference point (to produce a rotational acceleration). As far as I can ascertain, it has nothing to do with the moments we’re used to, the brief units of time, the ones that inexorably add up to our lives, that fly till they run out their race. And the phrase entire? “Moment of inertia”?

          Certainly we can recognize a metaphor when it’s staring us in the face?

          Hold on a moment, though! Did you say Montaigne costume?

          Yes, I did. That is the result of the lovely confluence of several felicitous happenstances.

          Where to begin? Ah:

          1. One day in the hallway I ran into Bob Hudson wearing an ornate French Renaissance outfit, accoutrement of his teaching that day. I expressed my admiration, and he explained its provenance: a student had asked to create the costume for her final class project. Bob bought the fabric. She got an A.

          2. Soon after, I was asked to give the keynote address at the English department awards banquet. Itching (as always) to subvert expectations and bring a bit of humor to the typically humdrum, I enlisted the aid of my friend and colleague Joey Franklin, who, 3. with his close-cropped “thinning” hair, though without a goatee, looks remarkably like Michel de Montaigne. We borrowed Bob’s blouse, bought a fake moustache, and convinced the theater department to lend us a ruff, then set him up in a nearby room on a laptop, poised to “interrupt” my dignified discourse with an “ill-timed” Skype call. So there I was, droning away to the assembled honorees on the importance of Montaigne, paging through PowerPoints projected behind me to the big screen, when there erupted a startling sound and appeared a popup window. Flustered, embarrassed, apologizing, I took the call, marveling at the serendipity. “How appropriate,” I said to Montaigne (to the audience). “I was just telling these people about you!”

          I wish you could have been there. The crowd was at first mortified, then confounded, then relieved once they realized the shtick. Holding attention with the spectacle, Montaigne and I conversed at length on topics of wide interest, such as the empathic influence of essays, the charms and perils of idleness and attentiveness, the need for balance, the interconnectedness of all things. Joey’s French accent is peccable. Somewhere between Inspector Clouseau and Pepe le Pew.

          4. After that successful trial run, I (re)discovered that Shelli Spotts, a graduate student in the BYU creative writing program, was (remains) a talented costume designer. I asked her if she’d be willing to make a Montaigne costume; she agreed, and 5. the English department let me use research funds to pay for it. Shelli modeled the garb on the famous 1582 portrait (copied several times later) featuring a rather dour Montaigne gussied up in his finery, including a satiny puffy overcoat, burgundy on its right sleeve and ivory on its left.

          After (surprise) appearances at the NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff, and the AWP Conference in Los Angeles, another keynote at our sister school, BYU–Idaho, plus a lead role in perhaps the silliest book trailer ever made, the costume now hangs in its dry-cleaner’s bag on the back of my door, messing up my muscle memory.

          I suppose I could store the clothes elsewhere, at home or in Joey’s office, and perhaps I will, though I feel a fleeting glee every time I glance over my shoulder to my door and see the outfit hanging there, alongside portraits of my children and below a copy of the dot-matrix sign my father years ago hung in all his children’s bedrooms admonishing DO IT NOW! DO IT QUICKLY, in response to our general lackadaisy, our tendency to ignore chores, refuse requests, or to get caught up in too many tasks, then complain about our lack of time. Little did we know, my father knew. I smile at the incongruities of existence, the recursions and extrapolations, the way experience seems to close upon itself but refuses to shut, remains open, confounds our automatic responses, demands our attention, the action of a thoughtful mind some distance from events. I think, also, to Montaigne’s office, with its inscriptions in the rafters, words to live and write by, such as I DO NOT UNDERSTAND; I PAUSE; I EXAMINE. Which humble habit, though it opposes my father’s fine advice, fits the essaying process aptly, admirably, as well as enacts the metaphor we seemed to have abandoned paragraphs ago.

          Seemed to, grammarians might note.

PATRICK MADDEN is the author of two essay collections, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates and, with David Lazar, edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. A Fulbright and Howard Foundation fellow, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.