August 15, 2008
Someday I’d like to meet Monsieur Tourette, and ask him about his syndrome. Because over the years I’ve had close friends, colleagues, mentors, siblings and girlfriends suggest—sometimes quite tactfully—that I must suffer from this condition. Nothing else could explain why I said the things I did, in the contexts where I said them. “I mean,” a childhood friend explained with warm good wishes, “I don’t think you’re trying to be an a**hole. I really believe you just can’t help it. But help is out there, man. There are whole foundations dedicated to… people like you.”
This conversation followed hard upon a barbecue at his house where I’d found myself recounting an hilarious old story from his bachelor past, too caught up in the narrative to notice the look of dawning horror on his wife’s face, too far from my friend for him to successfully kick me under the table. Anyway, through the years with a condition such as mine, you develop shins of steel. “Honey,” she said, her eyes wide as two eggs sunny-side-up. “You never told me about that….”
He smiled thinly, staring at me the way my beagles watch a squirrel. “Gee, I wonder why….”
What I wonder is how I have any friends left. Or how I made them in the first place, given my lifelong bout of hoof in mouth disease. I’m reminded of my first weeks at Yale, when I cheerfully introduced my affable if liberal roommates—all very nicely brought up young men from presentable schools—to the catalog of unexamined attitudes I’d inherited, via my parents, from Hell’s Kitchen, circa 1940. In the course of my first semester, I had it patiently explained to me that:
· It’s rarely polite to use the word “Jew” as a verb.
· When someone asks you to perform a domestic task that he rightly ought to do himself, you should simply point that out, firmly but gently. It really isn’t necessary to ask, “What am I, three shades darker than you?” No, it really doesn’t matter that there aren’t any black people in earshot.
· There are more courteous terms to indicate that someone is a Protestant than “heretic.”
I took such lessons to heart, as I did the little pointers in table manners I got from acquaintances who’d played lacrosse at Choate—for instance, that the chic way to eat French toast was to cut it first, instead of raising the entire slice to one’s mouth and taking out bites. You live, you learn.
But none of this helped my underlying condition, which a psych major friend diagnosed for me, using laymen’s terms that even I could understand: “Most people have all kinds of thoughts, and a lot of them are just as inappropriate as… the stuff you say all the time. But for most of us, there’s a kind of filter which separates the thoughts that run through our heads, and the words that come out of our mouths. Think of it as a sorting mechanism. I’m not sure we know in which part of the frontal cortex this function resides. You must have been born without it. Unless… were you ever in a car accident?”
It certainly would explain a few things….
I also wonder sometimes how I’ve ever gotten a job, when you consider the kind of monster that escapes my mouth during interviews. Once, when I was really desperate to escape a hellish position at an Internet bubble company that was deflating, I landed a serious opportunity to work for a Catholic religious order. These people weren’t just orthodox (heck, I’m orthodox, for all the good it does me), they were conservative. As in: Crew cuts, mandatory sports, militaristic discipline, chapels made intentionally hideous as if to prove they aren’t gay, and a sense of humor which I can only describe as… Midwestern.
The one girl I dated from the rural Midwest had just about everything I thought I was looking for: She was sweet and feminine, devout but not sanctimonious, lusty but chaste. Oh yeah, and she looked like Uma Thurman as a red-head. (I called her “Miss Iowa” because she had once been a finalist for that title.) There was just one problem in our relationship: I thought I was funny, and she disagreed. Or if she did appreciate my sense of humor—one of my only good points—she had a funny way of showing it. When I told a story that would have forced my NYC pals to spew beer out of their nostrils (I hate when that happens), driven a Southern pal to veer off onto the shoulder of I-10 (we nearly ended up in a bayou), or made my Cajun friend laugh so hard that he actually vomited (this occurred, with Pavlovian rigor, every time I told one story, until he finally started avoiding me), Miss Iowa’s reaction was very different. She’d nod through my stories, paying courteous attention, and then at the end smile thinly with tightly pursed lips and admit, “That’s funny.”
“Well thanks for identifying the genre I was working in,” I finally said, in my exasperated New York twang. “Now if you could just respond to it….”
A few months after we parted, I was in the City on September 11, and one of my random thoughts on that… unspeakable day was, “What would Miss Iowa say?” I visualized her standing (as several of my close friends had) on Wall Street watching people plummet from buildings before their eyes, and knew, just knew, how she would react. She would say: “That’s sad.”
We were doomed from the get-go. (She’s now happily married to a fine man from her hometown who shares her sensibilities, and I’m dating a gorgeous Southern nut-job.) As I met more people who hailed from Miss Iowa’s part of the world, I encountered a similar “lack of affect,” and decided at last this wasn’t something personal but regional. She lived in the land that laughter forgot.
I know, I know, there’s a whole industry out there purveying what is called Midwestern Humor. It invades my NPR station every week, with lengthy, intermittently wry accounts of sunless Lutherans solemnly eating Lutefisk. I rest my case. I stand with Homer Simpson, who famously reacted to being sprayed with Garrison Keillor by pounding ape-like on the radio and shouting “Be more funny!”
Anyway, back to this religious order where I was trying to get a job. More than trying, I was desperate to jump off a sinking scam. I’d been called in the week before by the top management and asked about my perceptions of my immediate superior, of whom I’d said, “Well, imagine a kid who likes to play in a public sandbox, but doesn’t like having other kids around… so the kid takes a sh*t in the sandbox, so he can have it all to himself. Well that’s my boss.”
It was clearly time to find other work—why not with a virtuous organization that actually preached the Faith? I was right for the job. I had the expertise, the knowledge, an advanced degree, and roughly the same views on the Church. There was just one problem: I had to go through an interview.
By now aware that my brain contained that critter which Poe called the “Imp of the Perverse,” driving me at all times to say precisely the wrong thing to the thinnest-skinned person at the worst possible moment, I spent the night before preparing, running through my Index of Forbidden Jokes, drawn from previous interviews:
· No bawdy double entendres.
· No impersonating ethnic minorities—no matter how well I thought I could do their accent.
· Nothing negative about my current employers. (Don’t mention the sandbox.)
· No snarky comments about how impenetrable I found Pope John Paul’s encyclicals. (He’s the first pope in history to write 20-page documents that you can’t understand without the help of a 400-page book.)
· No cracking wise about the New Mass.
· No more hand puppets. Especially not Senor Wences.
So there I sat, groggy from lack of sleep, across the table from one of the order’s brothers—an earnest former journalist who’d converted in middle age, and soon would be ordained. We got through most of the questions without incident—I managed to go some 30 minutes without saying anything crazy or nervously blurting out some expletive—and I thought I might really be in the clear.
“Okay, John, this all seems in order…. There’s just one more thing I’d like to ask you,” he concluded, capping his pen. “John, we need to know what kind of a Catholic you are.”
“Er, what do you mean?”
“John, are you the kind of a Catholic who would rather…” and here he enunciated carefully, solemnly pausing after each word: “Light… a… candle… or …” He kept careful eye contact throughout. “Or… curse… the… darkness?”
The Imp went wild. He started racing around his cage, rattling a tin cup against the bars, yelling “Warden, warden! Let me outa here—I was framed! Oh please, just for a second. I only need a second….” And what the Imp wanted me to say, what it took me biting my tongue until I could actually taste the blood, was this: “Well, brother, I’d rather light a fart than curse the darkness.”
I rallied my strength. I remembered my current boss, actually visualized him sitting in a litter box, surrounded by cat turds, tossing sand with a tiny shovel. I thought of my bank balance. I prayed for strength—and at last, I overcame.
I knew what I was supposed to say. I knew that just a simple sentence stood between me and gainful employment, working from home—some 70 long miles away from these good and earnest men. That sentence, “Why brother, of course, I’d light a candle.” Was it so hard to just friggin’ say that?
Yes, it was. While I could chloroform my inner Imp, I just couldn’t summon up the Simp. So I offered a compromise:
“Well brother, I’ve always said that I would rather… blow out one candle… than curse… the light.”
He paused, meditatively, as if he’d come across some Zen koan in the Gospels. He seemed to make a mental note to think about this later, and smiled. He shook my hand.
I got out of there as fast as my feet would take me, and found the nearest Irish pub, where imps may safely graze.