I spent three days on Cavendish Beach, PEI in early June 1983, eating nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I wrote the following at the conclusion:
Solitude is a necessary state that all should experience for some extended period of time. It must also be noted that man should not be in this state for too long lest he lose his sanity. Man is an insecure beast. So be it. Not only is he dependent on other men but also on external imaginary forces. It is man’s brooding mind that entrances him upon such a state. .
The fact that we are aware of our existence does not prove our existence; it only clarifies our insecurities. Does a bird brood upon its existence? Nay. It is because it has no reason to, as it concentrates its attention on the day-to-day. Man, in his comfortable and unnatural state, is cursed with his awareness. He cannot enjoy life as it is because he worries for the future. And so do I.
This I write to my future wife. The skies may cloud, the seas roughen, the days grow dark, but we will walk upon the crimson dunes of time (sic) together with the swallow at the glimmer of first light. Let us dig in our footholds together.
Remember: I ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“Boys.” Mr. Meagher hung up the phone heavily. It was the middle of math class, and he had been talking in hushed tones for over a minute. “Boys, I have to leave you on your own for a few minutes.”
“What happened, Mr. Meagher?” Steve Ardill, a large, cherub-faced boy with straight black hair, was the smartest in the class. “Can I be of assistance?”
“What I need out of all of you is to settle down and do your problems.” Mr. Meagher spoke abruptly, his well-liked sense of humor gone. “Is that understood, Mr. Moreland?”
Moreland’s thick blonde hair dangled in his eyes. “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Meagher turned to the boy slumped in the back row, his legs sprawled out. “Mr. Nettie? Am I clear?”
“Of course, sir.” Nettie smirked.
“I’m leaving Mr. Ardill in charge.” Mr. Meagher left the room. “Get to work.”
We listened to his footsteps fade down the hall.
“What do you think happened?” O’Connell asked.
“Shut it, O’Connell,” Nettie snapped back. “Get to work.”
A few kids snickered at that, looking around at each other and the empty hall.
“Oh, okay.” Doherty sat in a tight ball, his arms awkwardly under his desk, his face obscured by his bunched-up blazer.
“What did I say, Doherty?” Nettie demanded.
Doherty half moaned and muttered to himself.
Nettie wore a checked blazer. He was the only one who didn’t wear the standard-issue dark blue blazer that everyone else had to wear at the school. I didn’t understand why. “Doherty, I’m talking to you.”
“Doesn’t look like he’s listening,” Moreland said.
Nettie lobbed a paper ball at Doherty which grazed his head and skittered across the worn marble floor. “You going to pick that up, Doherty?”
Doherty moved slightly, his thick glasses briefly visible from behind his jacket, and then curled away again.
“Doherty.” Nettie lobbed another paper ball, this one a direct it. “I’m talking to you.”
I looked around at Ardill, who had not looked up once since Mr. Meagher had left.
“What’s the matter with you, dummy?” Moreland hissed. “You deaf?”
“He isn’t doing anything.” I knew it was a mistake to say anything. I really didn’t want to and immediately wanted to take it back.
“What’s that, McPhedran?” Nettie replied. “You say something?”
“Can’t you just leave him alone? He’s not doing anything.”
“What if he doesn’t want to be left alone? You ever think about that?”
I stared down at the math problem I had scrawled out and had no idea what any of it meant.
“I’m talking to you, McPhedran.”
“Hey, Excedrin,” Moreland added. “He’s talking to you.”
“Like I haven’t heard that one before,” I snapped back.
“God, McPhedran, you are such a…” Nettie leaned lazily forward, an arm extended in a half threatening manner. “You’re a dipstick.”
“What does that mean?” I demanded.
“You’re such a dipstick, McPhedran.” Nettie lobbed another paper ball at Doherty.
“Leave me alone.” I was making a lot of mistakes today; first speaking out and now this. “You can’t do this to me.”
“Dip stick.” Nettie replied. “Donny the Dipstick.”
“Donny Dipstick,” Moreland chorused.
A few others laughed, some of them – Kipp, McConkey O’Connell – trying the name out too. “Donny Dipstick.”
My face was hot. I was on the verge of blubbering. “I’m telling Mr. Meagher!”
“Donny Dipstick!” Moreland led the others in the chant. “Donny Dipstick!”
I was going to get up and beat the shit out of him, that or just run away, when a door down the hall opened and footsteps approached. The class went quiet as Mr. Treasure entered.
“I will be subbing for the rest of the class.” Mr. Treasure had a thick beard and squinty eyes; he never smiled.
“Is everything all right, sir?” Ardill asked.
“Everything is fine, Mr. Ardill.”
“Uh, sir.” Nettie raised his hand. “Can we work with a partner?”
“Individual work, Mr. Nettie.” Mr. Treasure walked down the side of the classroom. “Get to it.”
“Sir?” Moreland stood up.
“Sit down, Mr. Moreland.”
“I need to use the facilities, sir.”
“When class is over, Moreland. Sit.”
I looked around at Doherty, still bunched up, around at Ardill and the others behind me, all of them working and then over at Moreland and Nettie, who were not. Nettie gave a cruel nod.
“Mr. McPhedran,” Mr. Treasure announced. “You will find that you can do more work if you look at the page.”
“Dipstick!” Moreland made it sound like a sneeze.
The class laughed.
“Who’s looking for early morning laps here?” Mr. Treasure warned. “Mr. Moreland, you are looking like a prime candidate.”
I stared down at the page, writing out numbers in random sequences. I wanted the class to never end, to be frozen in my chair forever, but it wasn’t to be. The bell made me jump.
“Enjoy your lunch, gentlemen!” Mr. Treasure said.
“Thank you, sir.” Nettie was the first to leave.
I continued to pretend to work.
“Get a move on, Mr. McPhedran,” Mr. Treasure said.
“Yes, sir.” The room was all but empty now, Doherty just leaving. I crossed the quad after him, thinking of skipping lunch and sitting at the back of the chapel instead.
I’m looking for someone to answer to, someone who knows what matters most in this life, someone who has unequivocal answers about what I’ve done and said and should do and say next. I had a sense when I was younger that it was an older person, like my mother or father, someone had lived life and knew things. It took me time to figure it out, but I now know that the answers aren’t there.
I scroll through my phone in the evening, go down through the numbers to see who there is to talk to, who I know that might help me to make some sense. There are many friends and family who help for a time, who say the right things and make me laugh. But it eventually runs its course and I am drifting off and thinking of who else there might be.
It might be as Carrie Fisher mused. “All these people we weren’t finished talking to, that we will never be talking to until we see them again someday and pick up where we left off. Or we can talk to them as we go along, like talking to ourselves but so much better.”
Anyway, I just want to know what this so very wise person might think of my script about this guy who makes all of these calls during the pandemic, leaving messages for family and friends, hanging up when someone answers, and then killing himself in the end. It’s a dark comedy. It’s a little funny, right?
Previous posts on The Fear I-IV were culled from an autobiographical work called Wreck of Being. It mawkishly details my budding understanding of existentialism through four moments: watching The Wizard of Oz, attending a Leafs game and two Grateful Dead concerts. The book concludes with trite, rambling reflections on what The Fear means.
Now for my truisms: “Bad layering makes for bad burning”. Like every layer – everything from our friends and family to work and dreams – we learn what we need so that survival can be as straightforward as possible. We cannot operate our intelligence without confining it to contexts; to attempt to grasp all facets of existence outside a framed perspective is impossible, would result in a direct confrontation with The Fear and thus insanity.
Truism #2: “Tightly bundled minds cannot breathe.” A perspective must be maintained, but it must not be too confining. The Fear has to be understood and dealt with from time to time, for The Fear is the lurking reality of our universality, of our very irrelevance. It exists and cannot be ignored. Perspectives are vital to living a sane life, but they cannot be fixed. To live within a box of work, wife, whiskey and whist only makes the inevitable meltdown all the more forceful.
And thus my third and final truism: “Layers and The Fear kept in the right balance makes for productive years.” The time in warm and cool layers – the vast majority of years – will always be remembered as the coziest, though the time with The Fear will be the most vivid and affecting. An equilibrium lies somewhere; each to their own.
Half a year of pseudo-quarantining into the Covid-19 Pandemic, 921,000 people dead worldwide, another surge predicted, and I’m still hanging on in my insular world. Lots of reading, writing and weird sports viewing mark the time of most days along with an occasional trip to my new venue, The Full Shilling, with outdoor seating!
My latest accomplishments include:
Finally left the city, once to see the drive-in premiere of Andrea Mastrovito’s I Am Not Legend, and then, on a week-long trip to Maine for lobster and more lobster.
2. Began workouts on the elliptical and stationary bike, as well as having proper walks again, including Lower Manhattan circumnavigations.
3. Returned to writing in earnest, beginning the first draft of my autobiography, Fuck Pedagogy and returning to the fifth draft of Anori (Book One of Cx Trilogy).
4. Discovered the measured combination of Budweiser, Camel Crush, Nomad and Stoney Patch almost on par with Oxycodone.
5. Put back the 15 pounds I lost after surgery.
6. Won a shit load of acorns on Level 1552 of Fishdom.
Given the scathing feedback from my (former) editor, it took me some time to get back at the first book of The Cx Trilogy, Anori. I’ve made it at last and begun the long toil. The current plan is to work on this concurrently with Fuck Pedagogy and see how their orbits might move the tides. Here are the opening pages at present. (Criticisms welcome!)
Dee held hard to the balcony railing as she looked down to Battery Park, all but empty now, neat rows of sandbags banked up against the grates alongside the Custom House, a single police car, its blue lights mute and slow, moving slowly away. They had stopped broadcasting the evacuation order hours ago. Zone A was closed.
The curtains lulled back as Dee slid the balcony door closed. There was a rocket ship on television. Great shards of curved ice calved off its sides, dissolving into a torrent of smoke and steam, as it slowly rose. The cameras cut to a distance perch across the valley, where the rocket could be seen rising from the barren landscape on a halo of brilliant white, a vibrating candle.
She went into the bathroom and turned off the faucet, Apollo lurching after her, his black-striped tail snaking over her shoulder, as he peered into the tub, now full of water. She grabbed at Apollo’s paw. “Want a bath?”
Apollo slid wildly on the tiles, slamming into the door frame as he bound into the living room. She didn’t know why she would even need the water. The storm had been too long hyped, like the one before, Irene. People had talked and tweeted, hoping for the disaster to get worse so they could make money pretending they cared. She watched the spectacle, the cameras now inside the capsule, giving a fish-eye view of the flight instruments, the oblong window to the pilot’s right and the blue-grey glow of her helmet at the bottom of the screen, the ubiquitous Infinity logo on everything. The vanishing rocket rose atop its teetering plume, transforming into a dot, the smoke, once thick, drifted into emptiness.
She changed the channel to the local news. This morning’s high tide was at 8:30 am. That tide surged over the walls into the city this morning, eleven hours ago. That tide has already been here. This tide is a full-moon high tide, just like Irene, only worse; it’s much worse. The weather guy was earnest, his sleeves rolled up, his square jaw pushed out for this soap opera apocalypse announcement. This is the one we have to watch. This one could be anywhere from 12 feet up to 14, 15, 16 feet. 16 feet! Think about that. In just 15 minutes. This is it. The surge is almost here.
“Hurry up.” She grabbed the cat’s leash and opened the door. “Before it’s too late.”
Apollo bolted ahead of her and turned tight circles until the elevator opened, and then pinned himself against Dee’s legs, his head against the silver wall until the doors opened and he could escape to the lobby.
“Apollo!” Hector, large against the glass doors at the front, bent down to Apollo. “My man.”
“Keeping the storm at bay?”
“You shouldn’t have taken the elevator.” He scratched Apollo vigorously down his side. ““They’re going to shut off the power, Miss Sinclair.”
“It’s 28 floors, Hector.”
“The eye of the storm just hit Atlantic City. That just happened.”
She leashed Apollo. “They keep talking about the tide.”
“You see the market. You see that?” He pointed out to the green awning that had flipped around on its moorings, its rusted metal ribs exposed, swelling in and out with the wind, a dying animal against the corner of the building. “You sure you should be going out?”
She thought about telling him how she wanted to see the wall of water coming down the narrows, the boats curled up into its majestic belly, the Verrazano Bridge hidden from view, the Statue of Liberty dwarfed in the shadow of the blue-black water as it rose higher and higher, even if she knew it wouldn’t really be like that. “We’ll be back in a few minutes.”
He stretched his arm against the door, his jacket binding at his giant shoulders and pushed open the door. “Be careful, Miss Sinclair. Lady was killed by a tree today in Queens.”
I’ve begun work on an autobiography on my twenty years in teaching. Here’s a rough version of the opening:
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out who I am. I smoke out of boredom. I don’t want to do anything. I get excited about the dumbest of things. I seek revenge. My first thought after learning someone died, anyone, is that it was good that it wasn’t me. I digitize old pictures. I search through old letters. I reflect. I remember. I think about who I was as a kid. I sure as hell didn’t know who I was then, but I was certain that I would know when I was 19 or 20. And, it’s true, I thought I knew what I was about then, or I certainly acted like I did. The thing is I was just a dumb ass kid who wanted to fuck and be recognized as a great writer.
I’m no more than that now. I separate myself from everyone because I don’t like people. But what do I do when I’m on my own? I think of who I can talk to on the phone. I like being alone but I hate being alone. I’m afraid of nothing, and I’m afraid of everything. I wish this was just clever stuff. But it isn’t. It isn’t clever at all. It’s a spew. I mean, I hate acronyms. They are lazy and dumb – 911, Fidi – I hate them, and then I finally give up and use them and don’t question it anymore. It’s true that I have principles. Or I think that I do. I have a moral code. I just don’t know what that is. I’m not what I want to be. I’m still that stupid kid, thinking I will grow up soon. Even now, I think I know everything. I actually know that I know nothing. But knowing that is knowing everything. I think that I could hold up under torture and know that I wouldn’t last a second.
I really am stupid like that. I judge everyone. I objectify women, young and old. It doesn’t matter. I think that I am better than everyone, and I know I am not. I know that admitting all of this is good but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like I’ve wasted my life trying to be something I never was. I never could be myself. That’s the thing. I want to find that guy, figure out who the hell he is. One thing I know for sure: I’m no teacher.
I was in a game of cruel tag where you were stabbed with a pen. That made you it. Bryce was far too aggressive and broke the tip of the pen off in my arm. I looked at the ink spreading through my veins and told him that he was way too violent. He just smirked at me before racing off up the stairs. “Beware the Values and Beliefs Committee!”
Bryce’s friends said that he went to get his gun and that I had better leave. It was an odd space, wide open in the center and then winding corridors with doors and passageways off to the side. I needed to go to the bathroom, but they were all closed or occupied. I finally found what looked like a bathroom in the corner, which had a view down the valley, but it was full of people, some my former students, all of them chanting, “Beware the Value and Beliefs committee! Beware the Value and Beliefs committee!”
I pleaded with everyone to leave, but it was a big joke, especially for Tom Hanks. He was photographing everything and mocked me for wanting privacy. The sound of gunfire was everywhere, and everyone ducked and scattered, except for Tom Hanks who continued to mock me. He made it impossible for me to go to the bathroom and so I offered him my camera, complete with zoom lens. Before leaving, he delivered the line perfectly, “The Values and Beliefs Committee, you know, it might sound like a good thing, but it’s just another cloaking device to maintain status quo. Think about that.”
Construction worker tearing down house in Dartmouth, “God knows why the’re tearing it down. I don’t think they’ve decided anything yet.” He used a blow torch to cut through a solid beam.
Big-breasted, purple garbed woman, a typical lunch-hour secretary, fed the ducks in the public gardens. Sleazy, sultry and of an inefficient nature, full lips pouting and omnipotent (in a sexual sense), eyes watching, obviously dedicated to some rich jerk. Ducks meditate on the luxurious summer in harmony with the crude coo of pigeons.
June 7 Mileage 1172-1243
Ride One: Halifax to Bedford, brown Cadillac, middle-aged man, “Fuckin’ Toronto.”
Ride Two: Bedford to Fall River, Department of Nova Scotia Transport, big hippie with a red headband.
Ride Three: Fall River to Amherst (Al’s Camp), blue Trans Am (or Firebird), Al Smith, balding, excessively friendly. Al invited me to stay at his cabin in the woods. He talked about not wanting to work, man’s self-centered nature and the sanctity of human life As he got more comfortable, he said that he wouldn’t mind if his daughter was a lesbian or did porn. He went on to show me a giant stack of porn in the woodshed. The cabin was just one room, my bed a few feet from his. I did not sleep well that night. (Editor’s note: I now realize that I might have avoided being raped and murdered on this night.)
June 8 Mileage 1243-1320
Ride One: Al’s Camp to Amherst, blue Trans Am (or Firebird)
Ride Two: Amherst to Carleton, PEI, Custom Deluxe Truck, Dwaye with a strange mustache. “Potato farming is a bigger gamble than Las Vegas.” In 19 car crashes over his life, one where an old woman was killed.
Ride Three: Carleton to Charlottetown, red Oldsmobile, a Charlottetown resident who supplied food to eight schools.
Self-realizations in Charlottetown: a) bird chirps equal freedom b) I am an external viewer opposed to a tourist c) My photographs are artistic, not materialistic d) Hobbling is apparently our way of saying we’re sorry.