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  • Terrible Sanity
  • Sam Pickering (bio)

The price of living dutifully and responsibly is high, often costing life itself. Days devoid of madness are often terrible, desolate, and in their sanity truly mad. At my age a person scrolls back through his decades and ponders the innumerable occasions on which he betrayed himself in order to be true to others or true to the expectations of others. However, Time salves, and the regrets one fancies he feels rarely inflame and are always fleeting. In assessing what his months at Walden Pond taught him, Thoreau said he learned "that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." The old are not susceptible to seborrheic optimism. Dreams don't determine the direction I'm traveling although if my druthers were answered I'd like to slip back into dust quickly and painlessly.

Of course, dreams sometimes break my sleep. In them, celestial cities surrounded by jasper walls never appear. Occasionally, the dreams are mad, compensating perhaps for my having lived placidly and rationally. Last week I dreamed I owned a small home-furnishings store. I specialized in selling blood-stained floorboards. My clientele [End Page 103] were the jaded wealthy for whom exotic pleasure had lost its savor. They purchased the boards as conversation pieces and fitted them into parquet floors, generally in foyers but sometimes in libraries and music rooms. The most expensive boards were associated with notorious murders, the cheapest domestic abuse. I also sold blood-stained comforters and sheets. The more intricate the pattern of spillage the higher the price. Mounted behind clear glass, these served as wall hangings. They were especially popular with postmodern mothers keen to adorn their progeny's playrooms with "decorations more emotionally stimulating than Mary Poppins or Winnie the Pooh wallpaper."

No longer do I ask "what's the news" or speculate about what the news will be. Instead I ponder "what was the news?" In part I do so because washing old news is easy, whereas the unscrubbed present settles on the skin and clogs pores. The hagiography evoked by the death of President George Bush was, for example, macabre and underbred—Egyptian in its pyramidical vulgarity. How repellent, to Fed Ex his shell back and forth across the country to be gabbled over by the political class. He deserved a quick, decorous burial in Texas, refined and soothingly proper, muted recognition attesting to his common humanity.

The truth is that I am not comfortable in every minute of the present hour. When a stranger addresses me and says, "Have a blessed day," the words are as unpleasant to my ears as a crop duster is to the nose. No long-term wife is a cloister unto herself. Unable to retreat into a verbal nunnery, Vicki has been tainted by my linguistic distastes. Last month after hearing an announcer on National Public Radio say "irregardless" three times in fifty-one minutes, she telephoned the station in Amherst, Massachusetts. "Curdling illiteracy does not go well with breakfast," she said, urging the woman who answered her call to inform the announcer that regardless was standard English.

I react stronger than Vicki to the insignificant, especially lardy uplift. In December during examinations, signs appeared atop the circulation desk in the university library. The signs were modest, only eight by ten inches. One morning a sign simply said, "You Can." Underneath the [End Page 104] words appeared a bloodless Valentine heart. The next day, "Eat, Sleep, Breathe. Good Luck" replaced "You Can," and the heart became a Rosetta Stone of emoji: a five-pointed star, an empty circle, a smiley face with a curl swinging across the forehead like a pendulum, something akin to a croquet mallet, and then another something resembling a mitten with the thumb jutting out as if the wearer were hitching a ride. "Such signs should say, 'Study. Only Nitwits Rely on Luck,' 'You Can't If You Don't Work Your Ass Off,' and 'Distinguish Yourself from the Lazy Herd and Make Your Fee-Paying Parents Proud,'" my friend Josh said to...