Paul Simon, I Had To Ask

C’mon, talk me through this.

Probably you know I wrote a book called The Trespassers.  I like it a lot, but it’s nobody’s idea of a crowd-pleaser. What you don’t know, though, is that I’ve got another finished novel on this computer, and, alas, it makes The Trespassers seem like Michael Crichton by comparison. It’s pretty brutal. All writers have necessary fictions that help them through the task of writing: mine is that people will enjoy what I’ve written once I’m done with it. In retrospect, it’s pretty crazy that I was ever able to sustain that illusion about Uncle Orry, which is, on the very face of it, about as unpublishable as a book can be in 2017. It’s basically the first-person reflections of a 50 year old ex-political operative on a bus ride. I don’t know what on earth I was thinking.

Well, that’s not true; yes I was. I was, like I always am, caught up in the lives of the characters and burning to share their stories with imaginary readers who might find them simpatico. And apparently I still am, because I returned to Uncle Orry and his family on this week’s Almanac page. Orry himself gets a brief mention, but he’s not the focus. The main character of this story, which is long and involved, and written, like the novel, from a place of pain, is Orry’s nephew Elliott. The year is 1980, it’s April, and the action takes place in… well, if you’ve got some familiarity with New Jersey, you’ll probably recognize the towns and cities.

I’m pairing this, the most personal story on the site, with the only autobiographical song in the Almanac. (We had to visit Jersey sometime, right?) “Paul Simon, I Had To Ask” is a song about a panic attack I had on the night we’d learned from the vet that our good old cat didn’t have long to live. That was 2007, and I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t have any pets growing up, and I had no idea how to care for a physically sick animal, or a human (me) who had gotten psychologically sick because he loved the animal so much and couldn’t bear to say goodbye. I ended up on my back in bed, and then in the shower, convinced I was about to have a massive heart attack. Steven and Brad were over that night, I recall. I think they thought I was just being a prima donna. But it was real: I was actually dizzy, and numb, and having trouble walking from one end of the room to the other.

A person as anxious and frazzled as I am is always going to be prone to panic attacks. Check it out, I’m probably having one right now. But 2007 was the great year for panic for me, the year of head pressure and ringing ears and numb fingers and no sleep, and the more distance I get from it, the clearer it is that the loss of our cat was the main reason for my breakdown. That probably sounds ridiculous to you if you’ve never had a little pet, but if you have, you probably understand what I’m talking about. She was family. She used to sleep on my lap when I was typing. She taught me about animals — a subject about which, as a city kid, I knew practically nothing — and showed my why I ought to treat them with respect and try not to run them over or eat them for dinner and whatnot.  I’m told that there’s a Native American tradition that believes that after death, companion animals wait at the riverside for their people to arrive. I hope they’re right. Wouldn’t want to have an afterlife without her.

Since this page is the most me of any of them, I gave the cartoonist permission to make the picture look a little bit like me if she wanted to. Do you think she did? You tell me.