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Now, there is no one kind of history. It’s sort of like Snapple in that way. For our purposes, I have narrowed modern history down to five basic types: personal, military, sexual, browser, and purchase. To save time, I’m going to set the others aside for now and just focus on personal history. These are the things, at least in my case, that put the lie to the concept of the Butterfly Effect, where even the smallest action can impact events on the other side of the world, or some such bullshit. Let’s be honest: nothing was changed by the fact that I did magic for kids birthday parties back in the ’70s. Nothing. And thank Heaven for it. I don’t need the guilt. For me, Personal History is just a dumb, thoughtless house guest who creates a huge fucking mess and over-stays his welcome. But, as frustrating as he may be, I can’t get mad at him. I know it’s pointless. Personal History could give a shit. He is who he is: a blundering, callous dip-shit who staggers around the living room, wildly swinging a pair of metal nunchucks when everyone else just wants to sit quietly and talk. And later, after he passes out and the last person is sent on their way to the hospital, broken and bleeding, it’s not the scar or the inventory of scars that matter. It’s the story of the scars. Or at least the story we want everyone to remember. So we embellish the truth out of sheer embarrassment.
My memory is mainly made up of reruns and movie scenes, and scored by songs of people I’ve never met. How is it that all the emotional gesticulation of these complete strangers can be so dear to me, and at the same time I can be such an asshole to the people who deserve so much better? Perhaps it’s the need to invent what I would like to think of as my history. Something that is noble and perfect, like a story I would work out with action figures on the living room floor. And I assume the best about these celebrity strangers who I have forced into my history. The less I know about their real lives the better. Because I know the truth is that they have their own untidy histories, their own archeological garbage that I would even care to acknowledge. Interestingly, I always struggled with history in school: the cold dates and strange names set apart only by roman numerals. Perhaps I would have done better to cast it all with sitcom stars in my head, reinventing the War of the Roses as a bloodier Battle of the Network Stars.
I was lying alone on my mother’s bed one afternoon when I was about four, supposedly napping, but instead I quietly considered the landscape of my hands, the maps of my palms, and the limits of my reach. Then, quite suddenly and for no reason I can still make out from this distance, I became acutely aware that time was passing. Where once there had been a Now forever became a steep, slippery hill between Was and Could Be. I was seized with a sick, sinking feeling I would later recognize on a playground swing set, when, dropping back toward the Earth from the apex of my journey skyward, I felt a terrible emptiness in my groin. There on my mother’s bed I was blasting inexorably through my own history. One second tripped over the next in a panicked rush forward. I knew right away that I would one day die. And more horribly I knew my parents would die, and the useless knowledge was a fire hydrant that had been wrenched open and my tiny hands couldn’t hope to hold back the torrent of time.
And you could kiss my ass if you thought I was napping after that.
I know it’s common sense to avoid politics in polite conversation, but this is not a conversation. You may well have been yelling obscenities at me this whole time, but I can’t hear you. So, since this is so one-sided, I will go ahead and admit that I cried bitterly when Richard Nixon won reelection in 1972. From the mood in our home it seemed the worst of all possible outcomes, a nail decisively driven into the coffin the nation was building for the Future. It was terrible. There I was, five days after my seventh birthday, and it seemed like the game was over. For the first time American History crossed the path of my personal history, and he looked as sinister as a child molester. What else could I do but weep?
If M. Gandhi Were Mayor of Chicago, 1873
Oh, you fat sacred cow,
don’t you see there are laws
I must follow,
rules to this game?
Here is your golden daughter,
clinging to my ceremonial sash,
causing traffic: breathless horses
and wheels stuck in icy mud.
I don’t care, you mute beast!
Don’t expect the key to this city.
Take away your sad eyes.
It could have been you
in the barn
Credit Where Credit is Due
(podcast soundtrack in order of appearance)
“Ultimate” and “Freak Show Revenge” by Louis Schefano
“Palimpsest” by Roger Eno
“Jean Harlow” by Leadbelly
“Bird Dreaming” by Brian Eno
“Matter of Time” by The Low Anthem
“America’s Economic Plight” by Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner
“Oh Death Where is Thy Sting?” by Rev J.M. Gates
Former President Richard Nixon’s wit
“Our Song” by Joe Henry
“Water in the Moonlight” by Blind Tom Bethune (played by John Davis)
Special thanks to Wendy and Amelia Sheridan for their wise feedback on the podcast production. They saved you a lot of misery.