Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

Maybe I should start drinking and smoking again

Two weeks ago, I thought my stress level was high because I was working too much. I have not had a vacation in almost two years, apart from a few days here and there with friends or family. I’ve been working seventy or more hours a week, including weekends. The phone calls were nonstop and my time became difficult to manage. Such stress manifests itself in a willingness to bark at others. I chastised a woman for sitting on the steps in the subway. Rush hour, thousands of people pushing past, she’s having a sandwich on the steps. “Get off the steps, please.” She reached out and grabbed for my pants cuff as I passed. Her face went from passive gluttony to active anger. “Fuck you!” she said. “Die, bitch, die,” I replied and walked on. My heart raced like I was in danger. It also manifests itself in the details of life slipping away. Several weeks ago we pulled cable in a client’s new offices. A small two-day job. On the Saturday evening we clocked out early, around seven. I went home to Brooklyn, showered, shaved, put on clean pants and a pressed shirt, bought a bottle of wine, and headed for 111th Street in Harlem. I arrived, rang the doorbell. Nobody was home. The party had been the night before. I trudged back to the subway and completed the second half of a two-and-a-half hour round trip subway journey (unusually long due to track work on the L line). When I got back to Brooklyn, I decided to hit another party for which I had already given regrets. But I couldn’t remember where it was being held. And so I went home. That kind of forgetfullness is a side-effect of preoccupation, and it’s unnecessary. So I resigned fourteen clients, leaving me with three steady and three irregular. Enough to pay the bills. But the stress continued, largely because of the build-up and political wrangling prior to the war. I took it from all sides: in the British, the American and the French media, from friends and not-friends, from family and acquaintances, each convinced they were right, with few concessions to others. Before the war started, I said to a friend, “I wish they would just nuke us. Or we would nuke them. Or there would be massive riots or massive orgies in the streets, and then maybe we’d have relief. Whatever happens, I want to be three feet from the epicenter. I need it. I need release.” I need carry-through on the predictions of the doomsayers to help me clearly see what and who is right and wrong, and to recognize my allies and my enemies. That clarity is coming at the expense of my sanguinity. My friend said, “When life gives you orange alerts, make orange juice.” I returned, “When life gives you orange alerts, make like OJ.” The fleeing-in-the-white-Bronco part, not the knifing-the-ex-and-her-lover part. A couple of weeks ago, we were out for Melissa’s birthday brunch, my first distraction from work in several weeks. A pleasant group, everyone alert and friendly. Except, not a half hour in, I was pounding the table and shouting pre-teen epithets in earnest at Jordan, and he at me. About the war, of course. We agreed on almost all accounts, except for a minor point concerning the possible existence of weapons of mass destruction. I shouted “Asshole!” and “Idiot!” like I could get away with it, and I was ashamed. When the war started, I thought that was it: the pressure would diminish. No need to battle for the minds of the people around me. No more trying to be heard, because nobody would listen anymore. And I’m not talking about being heard in organized protests or in discussion forums on the Internet or letters to my congressmen, although I’ve done all that, too. I’m talking about the campaign to persuade those in my milieu. I had some success. But many people just want it all to go away, as if it doesn’t concern them, or as if, even though they disagree with the very idea of a war, other people will make sure the war isn’t carried through to its inevitable awful end. No need to act. Others don’t care at all. They’ve never cared, and their mantra has always been, “What else is on television?” But although the war has started, my stress level is still high. The pressure is still on. Everyone’s talking about getting out of wherever they are, or whatever they’re doing. They’re getting out of San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston and coming to New York. Getting out of New York and going to Austin, Costa Rica, Miami, and Paris. Getting out of advertising, getting into movies, quitting the job, starting the company, marrying the girl, dumping the boy, writing the big this-is-it letter, writing the book, taking the long-planned holiday, buying the house, selling the apartment, having the kid. This risk of doing things they should have done a long time ago is invisible against the perception of heightened ambient risk, the background, atmospheric, environmental risk. For a while I thought perhaps the war stress was high because I consumed too much news. It carries an emotional subtext which is not diluted by being extracted from its specimens, processed through the reporter, trimmed in the editing cycle, and pushed toward the consumer. It is amplified, propagated in equal quantities to the recipients, like the angry bleat of a car horn which transmits unmitigated levels of irritation to everyone within earshot. My days have news on all ends: the first thing in the morning, the last thing at night. Real news, as hard and as pure as I can get it, as close to the source as is available. I want to chew the coca leaves, not snort something cut with baby powder. If the geometry of apartments permitted it, and if I cared to watch television at all, I would install a big dish—a real dish—and tune into the untrimmed uplinks of reporters in the field. But I have radio and the Internet, a combination which for me digs deeper into the vein than the available television news. All the pictures I need I see once on the Internet, instead of a thousand times on television, where the repetition gives certain frames undue importance. Television is a wasteland when it comes to new information, and suffers even more than newspapers from an excess of commentary in place of reportage. I can, across the broad expanse of coverage, extract the essential developments. What comes through with the most force is what is common to all sources, and in this way, bias is checked. That is not to say the results are factual, or even truthful, but that it is as close as I can get without serving in the president’s cabinet or carrying a gun in the field. Perhaps I am closer: the embedded reporters express a growing frustration with their “access.” They don’t know enough to discuss the larger events, and they are not permitted to talk or write in any great detail or with any kind of real literary style about the minutiae. Away from the hurricane of information from newspapers and the Internet and the radio, I feel abandoned. Every thing freezes as I last left it. It’s like a homesickness. It strikes at the heart. I am too familiar now with names and voices in other countries, too interested in their goings-on. So I would only in vain remove the news from my days, for any salubrious effects would be outweighed by the harmful. Now I suspect the real problem, the most stress, comes from not knowing enough. And there seems no way to remedy that. And so, the conclusion: I need a vacation, and soon. I think I’ll go to France.

author avatar
Grant Barrett