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The crack-up

by Philip Martin | November 13, 2022 at 1:50 a.m.

It wasn't as dramatic as I'm about to make it sound, but I cracked up last week.

I came home from a movie screening Wednesday afternoon and told Karen I was blowing off the screening that was scheduled for that evening. I just didn't have the wherewithal to keep going. I went upstairs and wrote some cutlines for our Friday movie section, went out for a brief walk with Karen and our dog Paris, came home, ate dinner, and fell asleep on the couch watching a Finnish police procedural on Netflix.

I wanted to lay down in the grass and cry.

After a good night's sleep I feel a lot better. After months of bad sleep and waking up at 3:12 a.m., I finally collapsed and woke up feeling pretty good. Maybe still a little tender, but a whole lot better.

If you've been following along at home, you might understand that this has not been an easy year for us. I have a sister who is very sick, and an 85-year-old mother who is very worried about her. Karen's sister and her husband are trying to figure out what to do about their hurricane-ravaged house in Fort Myers Beach. We have lost two of our three dogs over the past couple of months, and while Paris seems fine now, a few months ago she was failing, and I fear her current renaissance is taped together with lasix and prednisone.

Early November is always a busy time of year for us, filled with privately significant dates and social and professional obligations. We've talked a lot in public lately. I have had a lot of appointments to keep. Something funky on the last blood test that my doctor wants to watch. (No worries, false alarm.)

I have a couple of self-imposed deadlines on extracurricular stuff. I'm going to miss one of them and am wondering if I ought to miss the other one.

Work has its usual petty frustrations. On Sunday afternoon I was putting the finishing touches on a 2,500-word essay on the Beatles album "Revolver" (running elsewhere in today's newspaper) when the computer I was working on blinked and restarted itself.

When it came back up, I found I'd lost a full day's worth of work despite having hit "save" every few minutes. And when I checked the auto-saved versions--a function on our software that's rescued me many times--I discovered that, despite the most recent version bearing a time stamp a few seconds before the crash, it also reverted to the version I'd saved the day before.

I opened my email app and started typing a message to Helaine Williams, the editor of our Sunday Style section, to tell her I wouldn't have the story this week. Then I deleted the message and started to grind.

The "Revolver" piece might be the better for it; I'd done all the thinking and the research and only had to remember what I'd written over the past four hours. I plowed through and got out of the office in time to make it to the annual Pumpkin Roll in Hillcrest that afternoon.

The email postmaster keeps warning me I've used 90 percent of my allotted server space. I owe a lot of people messages; I owe some people lunch. I owe my family attention. I owe myself something too, I just don't know what.

This is just the way we live now; there's nothing particularly hard about my life. But when you hit a wall, it stops you. This column is a hard reset.

One of the wisest people I've ever known once told me you don't get to choose your own adjectives. You can't say you're "smart" without coming off like Fredo Corleone.

My friend said thinking of yourself as being, say, "an intellectual" or "underappreciated" or "a good person" probably disqualifies you from authentically being those things. The genuinely good don't imagine themselves as good; they just do the work. They don't tell, they show, and let other people worry about how they should be described.

Around my house, one of the things that often gets said in earnest jest is "self-praise stinks." It's something Karen's German American mother--who died on a Christmas Day decades ago--used to say, and we use it because it amuses us and because we think it's true. It wasn't until fairly recently that I realized it wasn't just some bit of life advice that Karen's mom came up with, but a Teutonic proverb (or cliche): Eigenlob stinkt.

Sometimes, when I feel inclined to humble (or not so humble) brag, I remember the phrase. Sometimes it stops me.

And, several times at day, because at heart I'm an unkind person, I silently mutter it when I look at other people's posts on social media. But part of me also feels kindly towards the posters, because they've got their troubles, their disappointments, their heartbreaks. A lot of them are lonely and dealing with terrible things. A lot of them feel as sad or sadder than I felt when I cracked up the other day.

There is a Warren Zevon song called "Don't Let Us Get Sick." I'm trying to learn to play it on guitar; the chords are pretty simple and can be played in a few different ways. I'm trying to internalize it, to incorporate the song into my repetoire, to somehow make it my own.

I don't play it the way Zevon played it; intricate and delicately finger-picked. I dig at it with my thumb and first finger; I transpose it to G and play around with a capo to fit it to my voice. I've recorded it a bunch of times, but I've never been satisfied with what I've done.

It's a hymn really, secular, or maybe even pagan. Who it is the singer is beseeching, I wouldn't try to guess. I sing the chorus this way:

Don't let us get sick

Don't let us get old

Don't let me be stupid, all right?

Just make us be brave,

And make us play nice,

And let us be together tonight

Even typing it is a little emotional. There's a line later on--and I thought of all my friends, and all the troubles they've had/to keep me from thinking of mine--that can wreck me if I'm not careful. And then there's the last verse:

Oh, the moon has a face

That she shines on the lake

And causes the ripples in time.

I'm lucky to be here

With someone who I like

Who maketh my spirit to shine

Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. The midterm elections are over. The holidays are coming. Life is not a vale of tears, it's just life, and every now and then it's going to knock you on your butt.

I guess you don't always have to get up, and that sometimes you just can't. But I have.

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