This is a rare occasion; it really is. I am sitting at my desk, where I have produced tens of thousands of words in just a few months since I bought the desk; I'm staring at the accusatory little blinking cursor, and I'm blank. This is about as close as I get to writer's block, a malady I don't understand unless you're talking about a period of time no longer than five minutes. These "moments" for me are just that, five minutes tops. I'm not bragging; in fact, there are those who might suggest I take a few years and really think about what it is I'm writing instead of actually writing. There is a whole industry that caters to people who do just that; they will sell you subscriptions to Writer's Digest, and get you to sign on for six weeks of a workshop in San Miguel de Allende. I can't afford any of it; I can barely afford the five minutes drawing a blank (which I filled by writing this paragraph). While I was doing that, I ran through a checklist of possible subjects: books, movies, music, my childhood, my health. I've done them all to death, I hear, and I also hear a voice in my ear. It is that of my friend Mark, a microbiology professor in Tacoma, Washington, who reads this column via Internet just about every week and sends me brief electronic commentary. His imaginary voice tells me: "You sound a little down, this column," or "Pretty weighty stuff," or, lately anyway, things along those lines. He assures me he enjoys reading the things, but it gives me pause. Am I bumming people out? Am I taking myself too seriously?
Another friend, Dave, recently handed me a CD saying, "Here, listen to this. You can't sit around feeling too sorry for yourself for too long with this on." This was out of nowhere. Jeez, am I really creating the impression that I'm sitting around in an orgy of self-pity?
The CD is a ten-year-old George Carlin album called Brain Droppings. I love Carlin and I wasted no time putting it on between the first and second paragraph. This will give me a little motivation, I think. Something funny, that's the ticket. And I hear...
"What's all this stuff about motivation? I say if you need motivation, you probably need more than motivation. You probably need chemical intervention or brain surgery. If you ask me, this country could use a little less motivation. The people who cause all the trouble seem highly motivated to me: serial killers, stock swindlers, drug dealers, Christian Republicans. I'm not sure motivation is always a good thing. You show me a lazy prick who's lying in bed all day watching TV and only occasionally getting up to piss and I'll show you a guy who is not causing any trouble."
This is good, of course. I love it and I agree maybe more than I should. But then I reach around for some tobacco and...big mistake, a pipe. I never smoke the thing in public because it seems insufferably pretentious, but I truly enjoy the sensation of smoking an entire pack of Camels at the same time. Carlin nails me with riffs about holding a controlled fire in front of your face as a weird barrier between you and the world and some kind of flag indicating that you're smarter than everyone else. Yeah, true, I have to agree, I suppose, that's how it looks. But I want George to like me and...
What am I, out of my mind? Carlin's a comedian, it's a routine, and what do I care anyway if George doesn't like my pipe? I'm in trouble here. I need to fall back on "professionalism." That's it. I write for a newspaper here. "Did it ever occur to you," I ask myself, "to write something timely? It's March first and, let's see, that's Saint David's Day, some Welsh churchman," I think. Not that, but something up to the minute. Think relevance, the here-and-now; "In today's news. I suppose Carlin does a bit of shtick called "Professionalism." Not exactly, and for a minute I think George is on my side as I light up and type: In the news today...
George is complaining.
"You know what America lacks? A present. America has no NOW.... Instead, we reach into the past.... Of course, being essentially full of shit.... 'Still ahead, a look back!....' Honest, he said it.... Another way to avoid the present is to look ahead on their own schedules:...'Still ahead, coming up, up next, coming up this half hour, more to come, stay with us, also later.' At 5 they tell you what's coming up at 11; at 11 they plug the morning news; the morning man promos the noontime lady, and sure enough, a little later, here comes that empty-headed prick from the 5 o'clock news to tell you what he's gonna do on the 5 o'clock news. If a guy were paranoid he might not be blamed for thinking that the people who run things don't want you dwelling too much on the present."
Dave was right. I'm laughing so hard I'm blowing sparking tobacco, like Popeye. It's raining onto my crotch. Self-pity does not have a chance.
Next week: a retrospective on future columns I once promised.