There are a couple of things that are apt to send me, from time to time, into a bit of an existential tailspin about where I’m at in life. The first of these is the habit I have of randomly reading the obituaries of people I have never met. I don’t know why I do this. It is something like wiggling a loose tooth, or prodding a chancre sore with my tongue. Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about the man who bangs his head against the brick wall because it feels so nice when he stops…
I suspect you’re familiar with the type of obituary I’m talking about. They are the ones listing the seemingly endless accomplishments of the recently deceased. It’s always a person who, in addition to a forty-year career as neurosurgeon, has been on the boards of numerous corporations and non-profit societies, founded several private schools, explored remote areas of the Takla Makan desert, and composed a number of symphonies and comic operettas. Before falling from the north face of the Eiger on his or her ninety-seventh birthday, this individual was, amongst a host of other things, an accomplished amateur pastry chef and ballroom dancer, and had been fluent in fourteen languages.
I suppose that there are always two ways of looking at things, and this sort of tribute should really be an inspiration, a vision of the extraordinary accomplishments that human beings are capable of. Unfortunately, they inevitably lead me to contemplate the sorts of things that will one day be said about me when, well, you know. I try to imagine this memorial column in my mind: Bill was an accomplished mimic, and had several Monty Python routines nearly committed to memory. He once took up SCUBA diving because he thought it would impress women and look good under the “hobbies and interests” section of his resume, but gave it up when his friends made fun of the way he looked in his wet suit. He was known to have won several games of Scrabble by placing QUISLING on the triple word score.
I imagine that the sort of people referred to in these obits are also the sort of people who have kept extensive journals of their wondrous day to day activities, and that said journals will now be turned over to some museum or archive. And it’s this keeping of diaries and journals that is the second depressing reminder to me of my own shortcomings in the area of life accomplishments.
From the time I was twelve years old, I have wanted to be one of those keepers of journals. About every six months, I get swept away by the urge to record my days for posterity. It sorts of comes upon me like a form of literary lycanthropy. I grab a fancy-pants notebook, poise my pen above the paper, and wait for really interesting things to happen to me. And I wait. And I scratch. And I wait. Then, I’m generally interrupted by one of my friends phoning to tell me that his Great Aunt Dottie has just fallen off the Eiger, or he is off to host a week-long seminar in Bali on the relationship between the music of Fats Domino and the art of Hieronymous Bosch. Whoever said “It is not enough that I succeed, but my friends must also fail” (Gertrude Stein? Todd Bertuzzi?) was bang on, although I would happily settle for one or the other.
A randomly selected entry from one of my journals might give you some idea of why this whole process is not a real self-esteem booster for me:
June 16th, 2001: Strangest thing happened today: was cleaning dryer, and noticed that lint on screen bore uncanny resemblance to the profile of Ralph Nader. Went to IGA to buy bananas and bleach. Noticed hubcap in the ditch, think it might have been from Ronnie’s Tercel. Will let him know when he gets back from Bali.
Sometimes, during these journal writing phases, I become so desperate for something interesting to happen to me that I consider wearing a large papier mache trout head and skateboarding naked down Fourth Avenue with a burning roman candle in each hand. But I swore on my fortieth birthday that I’d never do that again.
When these dark thoughts become particularly bad, I pull myself out of the funk I’m in by convincing myself that I’m really just a late bloomer. On good days, I can really pull one over on myself, and imagine that this greatly prolonged larval stage of mine is really a good thing, and that at some unspecified date, not too far into the future, I’ll be discovering planets, tossing off librettos, and traipsing up and down the banks of the Nile like Bob’s your uncle. I might even be lucky enough to fall to my death on my ninety-seventh birthday. Sigh. Let’s hope it’s not from a step stool.