In 1996, when I spent a summer en famille in the hills of Massachusetts, and before I broke free of my Luddite chains and acquired cell phone technology, I tried establishing telephonic communication with a pair of friends who lived in L.A. The loopy adventure that ensued provided me with a transformational insight into my psychopathology.
Each attempt to phone included several emotionally or physically challenging steps. First I had to overcome the torpor of my everyday life. If successful, I would rise out of the wombish comfort of my favored salvaged club chair parked next to the thirty-year-old provincial-style, fruitwood-finished Magnavox Astro-Sonic solid state console hi-fi,1 on which I was kept ethereally connected both day and night to the world of sport, as transmissions from both the Apple and Bean-Town surfed the choppy airwaves and enabled me to follow the ongoing soapy saga of the Mets as they settled into the long and sad days of dolor that was their season, as well as mind-eye watch the delusive and painful, bipolar roller-coaster ride along a möbius track that the pennant fee-vah-plagued citizens of Sawx Nation held themselves auto-hostage on.
To get to a phone, I had to hike down a hill, through woods with roots to trip over, thorns to get caught on, clouds of mosquitos to suck my blood and induce histaminic madness, deer ticks determined to latch onto my sweaty nethers and infect me with the arthritic agony born of the bacterium borrelia.
When I emerged from the forest primeval, I would pass a fox-proofed, fenced-in hen habitat where Rhode Island Reds laid eggs and ranged free, then through my Bro-in-Law’s unmanicured, laissez-faire garden that repaid neglect with a bounty of sweet strawberries, tart rhubarb, purple snap beans, micro greens, macro squash, and red ripe tomatoes, before ending on the shoulder of a rural two-laner with a decision to make—whose phone to use? My Bro-in-Law’s was closest; my machatunim’s2 upstairs extension made privacy possible. My weed-smoking acquaintances, who lived just down the road, would help me kill two birds with one stone.
Each had its drawbacks. My Bro-in-Law sometimes spooked me with the Ivory Snow purity of his Waspitude. The machatunim hated me, ’nuff said. My pot pals would usually smoke me out before I even had a chance to sit down, and intoxication by active ingredient would make for an existential moment that could go either way: it might amp up my glib or just as easily send me into a cotton-mouthed death spiral that freighted even the simple act of dialing with unnecessary and debilitating psychic peril.
No matter which option I chose, every time I made the phone call, I’d get the same recorded regrets—they weren’t home, leave a message, they’d get back to me. They never did. As July melted into August and the heat index rose precipitously, so too did my paranoia. I was convinced these people, whom I had known for thirty years, had cut me off. And at those times when I was a passenger on the THC trolley, I could even picture them standing stone-faced in front of their answering machine listening, unmoved by my progressively angsty attempts at lightheartedness that never failed to devolve into needy bleats for a response, any fucking kind of response, as affirmation of my despised existence.
Like Sisyphus, I never gave up. Just as our return to Brooklyn was imminent, I decided to hop down the hill and make one last stab at reaching out. I chose Mr. and Mrs. Reefer and let them get me wasted beforehand, because I had forgotten that in the World of Weed not all endings were happy ones. I screwed my courage to the sticking place and dialed. Before you could say Be careful what you wish for… there was an answer. After IDing myself, but before I could confess my paranoia, My Friend the Fantasist apologized profusely. She explained that she and her old man, My Friend the Thespian, had spent the summer in Miami nursing her gravely ill pops. The docs had given him little chance to pull through, but she was having none of it.
As to what followed, it would be easy to say my relief at not being shunned by these longtime friends, compounded by my reefer madness, caused me to relax my intermittent vigilance, shut down my speech filter, and so not think before I spoke. But that would be self-serving, as well as untrue. What I said next I believed wholeheartedly. In fact, in light of the obvious pain this ordeal was putting her through, I felt I was being downright empathetic as I echoed the soul-soothing words of Stephen King in Pet Sematary and told My Friend the Fantasist that Sometimes dead is better.3
Deafening silence would have probably been more desirable than the shocked, hurt, angered response I got. My Friend the Fantasist simply couldn’t believe what I had said. She thought it hurtful and cruel. In boxing, this response would have been a knockdown with a standing eight count. I used those few seconds to gather what was left of my wits, hammered though I was by my blood-cannabinol count. I knew I didn’t have the time to figure out what the fuck just happened. I knew My Friend the Fantasist was feeling hurt and that I was the prime mover of that hurt. And mostly I knew that if I were to salvage this friendship, I had to apologize, even though it wasn’t exactly clear to me why. I made molto apologies. I wished her dad a speedy recovery.
Afterward, as I walked the two-lane blacktop blitzed and farmisht, past the garden, the hen house, and through the woods, I couldn’t get that exchange out of my head. I relived it on a loop. I was so preoccupied, I didn’t even see the giant exposed root that came up to meet me, not to greet me,4 and took a header, bruising my shoulder, skinning my left arm down to the elbow. Intoxicated by the sweet, funky smell of humus radiating up from the forest floor, I reviewed in overdrive, determined to figure this perplexing shit out. As I focused on my pain, other things began to slowly come into focus. I realized I could share my experience of this pain with anyone, and all, save hard-core sociopaths, would identify, wince, condole, because pain and suffering are universal, ontological givens of human existence.
Although I correctly surmised that My Friend the Fantasist was in pain, and thought I had commiserated, I had actually added to her pain. How could that be? I wondered. That thought bubble led me to the inescapable conclusion that my calculus of the universal was flawed. While I acted under the assumption that my universals were universal,5 the sad fact is they weren’t; my worldview was over-determined by manifold axioms developed while living life wholly inside the Bob Bubble, and were therefore not axiomatic at all; they were nothing more than narcissistic projections, born of my unique set of indifferent, sometimes even malign nature/nurture experiences; I should have known better; I should have not mistaken my mischugass for foundational elements of human emotion; I therefore should have never said it, and having said it, I should not have been surprised that for My Friend the Fantasist, sometimes dead was not always (was, perhaps, never) better.
Once back in the cabin, after attending to my booboos, I plopped myself into my chair, turned my attention back to staticky dispatches from Sportland, and let my stunning life lesson drift off into a mental dead zone, saving me from separating universal wheat from solipsistic chaff within my clearly delusory weltanschauung.6
From little didactic acorns giant behavioral oaks grow, tapping their roots into Mother Earth in slo-slo-slo mo. And so it was with the growing self-knowledge that my worldview was corrupted by idiolectic behavioral, metaphysical, epistemological, and ontological propositions that would never pass a truly universal smell test.
In the decades that followed, this insight took firm root, fertilized and irrigated in part by my daughter’s hectoring that I follow her atheist’s version of the ten-second rule: When thou hast the urge to speak, thou shalt hold thy tongue as thou count’st to thyself ten Tower of Babels, so as to keep thyself from uttering supremely stupid shit.7
1 So much depends upon/a red wheelbarrow/glazed with rainwater/beside the white chickens.
2 Machatunim are variously defined as your kid’s in-laws or simply relatives by marriage. In my case the relatives by marriage were hard-core members of an alien tribe, and the appropriate, if somewhat mangled, title of the sci-fi movie that my position inspired would be I Married the Daughter of Monsters from Outer Space.
3 The book prompted the Ramones to meditate on the possibilities of Pet Sematary resurrection: I don’t wanna be buried in a Pet Sematary/I don’t wanna have to live my life again.
4 In Son of Frankenstein, the eponymous hero (Basil Rathbone) returns to his barony after a life spent in exile as an academic in Amurrica, his Yankee wife and young child in tow. The train pulls into the station on a rain-soaked night, the platform a sea of umbrellas. Baron Jr. is pleased to be greeted by the townfolk, but the Bürgermeister quickly sets him straight: We come to meet you not to greet you.
5 Compare to the bald Pharaoh Yul Brynner, Moses’s cousin in The Ten Commandments, realizing after the Tenth Plague has claimed his first born: His god is god.
6 The term “psychological warfare” entered the language in 1941 as an English transmutation of the German word weltanschauungskrieg — worldview war or ideology war. This is irrelevant to anything I’m saying here, but I couldn’t help myself. I just loves this lingua-factoid so very fucking much.
7 If the Google is to be believed, the original ten-second rule calls for a meditative review of any future act seen through the what-would-Jesus-do? prism.