Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Case of Emotion

I don't know how many of you saw "Anchorman," but the title of this post is not really used in the same sense as Will Ferrell's "glass case of emotion" line. I just kind of like the symmetry, is all.

Anyway, two Friday nights ago now, the 15th, I had an existential episode I thought I'd share. I'm not sure why I haven't updated the blog much lately, other than a general lack of extraordinary things to say. Waiting to find out if the Washington Monthly has made its decision isn't a very deep well of anecdote. However, all the same occasionally something interesting happens to all of us, and this story is replete with different characters and an epiphany. It did unfortunately stem from booze. It was very real all the same.

Here is the gist: Stephanie was out with some friends from work that night while I was separately at a friend from work's house for dinner. Stephanie et al were having a "staff retreat" that was really an excuse for the bigwigs to pick up a three-day bar tab. In the end I'm not sure it even brought anyone closer together, at least not to upper management, although it sounded like fun. Anyway, I was over at a friend's watching The Big Easy, probably one of the best bad movies ever made, and eating Cajun food for effect (and because, at least at The New Orleans Cafe in Adams Morgan, it is delicious), and working my way through a bottle of $20 French wine I had originally bought for three, thinking Steph would be arriving shortly and my friend would be interested. As is sometimes the case, I had to improvise by drinking it all myself because... we'll call him Al. Al wasn't interested and Stephanie was nowhere to be found. So I drank it all myself. It went down with my jambalaya very nicely.

After the movie ended and Stephanie remained indisposed at a cocktail lounge somewhere, I was unceremoniously shown the door and left to my own devices. This will mean less to some than to others, but I walked from 17th and U St. to Dupont Circle -- here is a decent map -- to wander the aisles at Kramerbooks while I waited for Stephanie's head to clear and for her to call me again. I was a little disoriented all the way there, which ended up being a longer route than necessary, for one thing (see how I didn't need to go all the way to Massachussetts?) , and yet seemed not to take any time at all. When I arrived, I kept dropping things, especially books and once my cell phone, but I mostly sat down and behaved myself and pretended to be considering some children's book about elephants while I waited waited waited for my drunk missing girlfriend to let me know what was up. I eventually gave up on this plan when it became obvious it wasn't working and headed for the actual circle, which has a large fountain in the middle and a lot of picnic tables where patzers play chess, sometimes well into the evening. I have played there myself. My record is an even .500, but that's another story.

Imagine a fountain, at night, while you're somewhat drunk, with dark figures sitting here and there on the rim or on benches nearby, and then lie down on your back on the rim yourself and try to clear your head by letting the fountain splash you. Add a thirtyish black woman with a good, plaintive singing voice sitting at your feet with a guitar sharing her sad love songs. Then a teenage couple at your head murmuring to each other. Then try to figure out how you got there in the first place, why you went to that bookstore, why you left, where your girlfriend could be and what time it is. But then don't really bother with any of that and notice that single star you can see through the clouds. Kind of let the singing and the darkness and the sound of the water fill up your head. Keep looking at the star and suddenly feel, for no particular reason, that you haven't really cried, not for any reason, in maybe five years. You kind of start to wonder about that, and then your mind drifts to all the other stars out there, and because you're not entirely in control of your thoughts, and the night sky is on your mind, your head starts running wild with visions of what's going on in the universe: galaxies literally colliding with each other, huge gaseous clouds drifting through forgotten solar systems, stars exploding at the very moment you're looking up into the sky that we won't know about for thousands of years. And then, in a second bizarre mental leap, jump to thinking about how small and ridiculous -- how really, truly small and comically (that's comically) unimportant -- you are in the scope of all of that, in the length and breadth of infinite creation, in a cosmos of impossible and ever-growing size, a borderless expanse of black holes and time-bending supernovas and giant comets tailing through space so far away we will never see them. Let that sink in while you're not really in control of your faculties.

Then, to put you over the edge, in a further leap of mental gymnastics, think about all the poor and wretched people on this planet who -- your mind tells you in a strange moment of clarity -- do not ever think this way because they cannot or do not have the luxury or have not been told how. People whose needs could so easily be met if things worked differently.

Then the woman's singing, at the most felicitous moment, reaches a point where you cannot hold back your crying any longer. Although you are not in any formal sense religious, you cannot help but feel you have seen through to something that you know will not last. You are moved beyond your capacity to rationalize: you put your hands together, because your brain is reacting purely on impulse, and you cry and cry and say "Oh god, oh god, oh god," over and over. You realize, somewhere in the remaining conscious, clear-headed portion of your brain, that you look to everyone like you are on drugs or are at least suffering from withdrawal, probably from some exotic toad serum. But because the feeling persists that you've hit the cosmic nail on the head, and because you don't really care about anything else, you keep crying and muttering for five minutes. Maybe six. It's not an epic, drawn-out affair. But it lasts as long as it needs to.

Then, when you've collected yourself, you wonder what happened and whether it will happen again. You want to tell your girlfriend about it. But when you catch up with her, a scant ten minutes after you've composed yourself, she is too drunk and giddy to understand your story. So you go home and sleep it off.

In the morning, somehow, everything has returned to normal and for a while you feel disappointed. But you realize, if you lived every moment of every day thinking about the size of the universe, you'd be committed to a mental hospital.


Blogger nolo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:58 AM  
Blogger charvakan said...

Cool story, Lapp. I was sort of hoping my bad example would give you an aversion to alcohol. Unfortunately, when I drink that much in a public outdoor setting, emotional-philosophical episodes don't have much opportunity for capturing my attention since I'm usually trying to figure out where I can find a restroom. The fountain would have been the last straw.

To tell the truth, the only times I'm close to going on crying jags are when I'm sober. Alcohol is the mind-altering substance that is least conducive to introspection for me, and it's only under the influence of booze that I can convince myself that I'm NOT insignificant and pathetic. Marijuana supplied a lot of hours of fuzzy shallow philosophy, and acid gave me the impression (certainly false) of penetrating to the heart of things. When you're an old fart you might get to the point where you see all such revelatory moments as basically meaningless except as entertainment, making your life seem even less significant. But maybe not, if you're lucky.

Nolo's story is one I want to read too. After that tease, she better tell it. I'm not sure I have a story like this in me anymore...but if I do, I'll dish.

11:36 AM  
Blogger nolo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:30 PM  
Blogger nolo said...

Actually, this passage about Buddhist practice probably sums my reaction to your story up best:

"Somewhere in this process [of meditation], you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. You also are no crazier than anybody else around you. The real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. This does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to Liberation. So don't let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone actually, a sign of real progress. The very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it."
--Henepola Guanaratana

9:18 AM  

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