Questions of opinion | Monthly
I started writing when I was nine or ten. I wrote controversial verses with titles like “Acid Rain Will Kill Us All”, and I was worried about the opium yield of the Golden Triangle. And while I was writing and worrying, I couldn’t understand why my parents weren’t so determined to stop the destruction of the planet, which was reportedly being carried out aggressively over many fronts.
At that age, I had decided that I would either become a poet or a detective, and for these purposes, I filled up some scrap paper with doggerel and created a private investigative agency. Making one was as easy as giving friends business cards made from die-cut shoeboxes. “Investigations Inc.,” I wrote on the cards with text. “Crimes and mysteries explored.”
Finding cases was simple: like Pete Evans or Roseanne Barr, I saw a criminal conspiracy everywhere. An early case involved a diaper. Thrown under a tree at the edge of the school, the disposable diaper had suspiciously spilled its absorbent, gelatinous interior. It wasn’t fair, I thought as I pushed the jelly with a stick. This was contraband. This was the work of the Triads.
To me, the influence of the Triads seemed omnipresent. They were a formidable enemy who plotted with baroque inventiveness. To defeat them, I would have to be patient and hyper vigilant. I pushed the gelatin a little more. Drugs in diapers. Those sneaky bastards. I spat out the blade of grass that I was chewing.
I sketched the scene of the crime in my notepad. Then I tore up a blank page and made a raw envelope in which I dropped a sample of the suspect jelly. I didn’t have a forensic lab, but I had a plastic magnifying glass at home that came with my first stamp album. I could look at the evidence there.
Before returning home, I walked to the library and found three books on the Asian cartel. I brushed each index finger and ran my shaking pinky finger up the spine to where “diaper” / “diaper” should be. There was nothing. Unfamiliar with the concept of logical error, I viewed the lack of reference to layers as proof that I was the only detective on Earth to know about this method of drug trafficking.
Supporting my detective work required a fantastic and rich life. Books have helped. From the library I borrowed books from Sherlock Holmes. I thought stories could help my craft; sharpens my instincts. But when Dr Watson first meets Sherlock, he is shocked to find that the big man is a dilettante. He doesn’t know anything about basic literature, philosophy, or astronomy – he ignores that the Moon revolves around the Earth, and Earth the sun, and brazenly swears to purge the fact of his mind when Watson suggests it. .
What sherlock did I was surprised to learn that it was a strange knowledge of chemistry, a love of pulp fiction, and a basic understanding of common law. He was also a tough boxer, which presumably contributed to his credibility on the streets and his ability to beat suspects.
To me, these were strangely abnormal and inaccessible qualities. And unlike Sherlock, my voice hadn’t lowered yet – the importance of which I discovered while trying to investigate, over the phone, a local act of vandalism.
“Angelo’s Restaurant, hello.”
“I understand a hammer was thrown through your window on Tuesday night.”
“Who is it?”
“Detective? ” – bursts of laughter.
“Well, private investigator.
“What do you want, Inspector?”
“Can you tell me what kind of hammer it was?” Large how? What color handle? Did he have a claw?
They hung up.
My interest shifted to the paranormal. Telepathy, Bermuda Triangle, va-o-the-wisps. My next case was about spontaneous human combustion, a phenomenon I discovered in one of my aunts. Readers’ summaries. The photos were amazing. There was one of a woman who had been suddenly, inexplicably cremated in her living room – only a perfectly preserved leg and shoe remained. Another photo showed a man spontaneously reduced to ashes in the driver’s seat of his otherwise intact convertible.
It wasn’t really a case, I guess, just a sustained fear that I would also succumb to this weird hellfire. I considered ways to reduce the chances of my cremation, such as going vegetarian and having longer baths. For months, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It didn’t matter what I did. At the crease, watching the bowler come in, I thought there was a fifty-fifty chance I would catch fire before the ball hit me.
After a few months, I finally let go of the fear of becoming a human candle and started investigating the stone heads on Easter Island. They were less traumatic. The books I read suggested an extraterrestrial provenance. But then, these books always have. Aliens or ghosts were the answer to everything. Culture circles? Extraterrestrials. Depressed salary? Burial site disturbed.
This is all just a strange, personal prelude to some of the wisdom shared with me over Twitter a few months ago, and which I have often thought about. “I sincerely believe that you can’t have a job where you have to regularly post opinions on things without it damaging your mind in some tangible and alien way,” wrote comedian Ben Jenkins. “It was probably a problem in the past limited to a handful of weirdos in the monasteries and now most of the writers are working.
He’s right, I think, and I love the “alien path” and his suggestion of the ineffable mental corrosion that follows sustained participation in our perpetual, hyper-tribalized production of political opinions. But the effects are not aliens in that they are knowable. We can see what years of payment look like to replace thought with provocation – that’s defending Trump’s push to sack Capitol Hill and turning climate change into a communist fantasy – but maybe the moral and intellectual effects. are unknowable to its worst practitioners.
While I’m sure Ben will laugh at this weirdly long analysis of an old tweet, I’m also sure he was speaking more subtly: what damage happens to the mind or nervous system when you force yourself, how many times, to transform ambivalence or ignorance. or craving clicks, subscribers and an unmistakable personal brand?
Anyway, now you have it. An anti-column. Long, bizarre and futile, but for the private pleasure of writing one sentence then another, while being relieved by the pretension that I am changing the world.
While I was investigating the stone heads, daddy was dying in the hospital. Cancer.
It happened suddenly. At least it seemed to a child distracted by his own mortality. In retrospect, her hospitalization was preceded by months of testing and frightening discussions with Mom. But when you try to stop a world drug cartel while escaping your sudden self-immolation, you miss some things.
Then suddenly he was there: my skeletal father in a hospital bed, surrounded by nervous parents whose names I didn’t know. He looked like an intubated victim from Pompeii (Vesuvius was another of my research interests).
When I saw him for the first time, I felt nauseous. A nurse brought me a paper glass of water and led me to the TV room where the dying watched the afternoon reruns. The murder she wrote. I immediately threw up on myself and was carried in an extra bed. The nurse pressed the cup to my lips and gently tilted my head back. “It will be fine,” she cooed.
“Have you ever treated a survivor of spontaneous human combustion?” I asked.
My father defied his prognosis. But at the time, after doctors told him he was dying and had to prepare his will, he returned home and seemed as gently resigned to life as he had been to oblivion. There was no transformation, no carpe diem moment, no visible elation. He spent neither more nor less time with his children. He didn’t adopt a lover, didn’t start a memoir or trek through Nepal. He didn’t mythologize the surprising challenge of his body; he did not weave webs of mawkish pseudo-spirituality. He filed his will in the office and started selling insulation door to door again. His transition from deathbed to doorbells was, in hindsight, remarkably unconscious.
I can now write this about my father because I am no longer a child – he is no longer obscured by my childish fantasies. My priorities are reversed: if I have to do a lasting good, this good will come from bigger pay attention to my family and not to my letters.