Friday, March 12, 2010

The Squirrels Have the Conn

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.  –C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It was happening again.  After several weeks of living in a sort of energized serenity, enthusiastic about my goals and confident in my ability to move toward them, I felt as though my brain’s remote control had been hijacked by hyperactive squirrels. I found it immensely hard to concentrate on anything, and couldn’t seem to find the time for any of the things I was supposed to be doing. The squirrels kept changing the channel in my head.

I used to think these occasional hijackings were a simple periodical phenomenon, like biorhythms, but I have come to believe they have a definable cause.  It’s like this: A few years ago Jerry Falwell and Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State appeared together on CNBC’s Capital Report.[i] For several months, Falwell had been attempting to embolden conservative churches into endorsing candidates by persuading them that the IRS had no power to enforce tax law.  As evidence, he asserted that his Old Time Gospel Hour ministry had never had its tax-exempt status revoked despite plenty of overtly partisan politicking.  When Lynn attempted to expose this canard, Falwell called him a liar. 

After the CNBC debate, Lynn obtained a copy of the 1993 IRS document comprising Falwell’s agreement to pay $50,000 in back taxes.  It seems the IRS had retroactively revoked Old Time Gospel Hour’s tax-exempt status for 1986-87, when Falwell was using the program to endorse candidates.  The document bore Falwell’s signature.

About a month later, Lynn and Falwell were again debating, this time on the Fox News Channel.  When Falwell again denied having ever been penalized for improper political activity, Lynn produced the IRS document.  As soon as he realized what Lynn was about to show for the cameras, Falwell went berserk, shouting at Lynn and the host and attempting to prevent the paper’s being filmed.

This is what happens inside my head.  As soon as I get too close to seeing something in there that my inner Jerry Falwell doesn’t want me to see, he cries havoc and lets slip the squirrels of war.  And gives them coffee.  And they start changing the channel every few seconds, drawing my attention toward memories, anticipations, fantasies and daydreams, “conversations with people who aren’t there”[ii]—anything, in fact, but the man behind the curtain, that thing they are charged with keeping out of my awareness.

Maybe it is actually the Devil in my head, masquerading as Jerry Falwell.  As a matter of fact, I am coming to believe that if “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”[iii] have an objective existence, it is as a sort of psychic parasite on our own minds, exploiting our self-deceptive tendencies from within.  Marianne Williamson said that one of her friends had tried to persuade her that the Devil was all in her head.  “That is the worst place he could possibly be!” she rejoined.  “That is not good news!  If he were either stalking the earth somewhere…or between your ears, where would you rather he be?”

So how do we disempower the Devil and his army of squirrels in our heads?  If the way to defeat a blackmailer is to come clean about whatever he is threatening to expose, and if these squirrels are working in collaboration with my own self-deceptive desires, maybe the approach should be the same:  come right out and confront the things that the squirrels and I are hiding from me.  I think I know what some of them are:

·     I never advanced beyond a middling point in academia because I am a mediocre academic. “Our duties are determined by our deserts to a much larger extent than we are willing to grant."[iv] Maybe I wasn’t robbed; maybe I actually got what I was fit for.
·     If I had applied myself more in school, I would have a fulfilling career now. Plenty of people who worked harder, not smarter during our school days are now in a position to hire me.
·     I can’t get my classical music performed because it’s just not as good as I think it is.  As cartoonist Adam Green put it, “Is there anything more knee-slappingly hilarious than the delusion of one who believes they will be paid for their meager so-called talent?”[v]
·     Even if anything should work out for me now, I’m too old at this point to make something of myself anyway.

I made this list, and it rings true as far as it goes; before my latest attack of squirrelophrenia, I had caught a glimpse of these conclusions, and the sudden violence of the attack seems to indicate that it was meant to keep me from going any further down that road.  After all, if I “give up all hope of fruition,” as the Buddhists say, the Squirrelmaster loses one of his most powerful means of keeping me miserable.

And yet, something seems missing; the list feels incomplete.  I can’t shake the feeling that there is something larger, some overarching truth that embraces all of these and better explains the Herculean labors of the squirrels to distract me. Moreover, although I suspect that the above statements are to a greater or lesser extent true, I can still posit mitigations to all of them—they are all relative, and therefore still open to amendment and clarification.  There must be some absolutely simple, clear and incontrovertible truth whose power for change is great enough to move the Devil to arm his collaborators in my head in order to keep it out of the light.

As it happens, recent events brought this latest attack to an abrupt end.  I had scheduled a root canal for the morning, after which my family had planned to drive down to D.C. to visit my wife’s mother and stepfather, who is in the last stages of cancer and is not expected to live more than one to three months. As I drove around looking for a parking space, I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser in my rearview mirror and pulled over.  As I sat in the car waiting for what seemed like a long time, a second police car pulled up.  Trying to look nonchalant, I pulled out my license and registration, and discovered that the latter had expired.  And things were destined to get worse, as I could tell by the flashing lights and radio sounds all around me. 

I should explain that I ordinarily drive our Toyota Rav 4—the “kid car,” as my children call it—since I do the lion’s share of the family driving.  On this particular morning I was driving our Saturn wagon, which generally sits by the curb waiting for my wife to take it, rather than the train, to work.  So because I hardly ever drive this car, its paperwork had developed what Douglas Adams called a “Somebody Else’s Problem Field” (S.E.P. field for short) around it. 

So I am pulled over one block away from my endodontist’s office, twenty minutes before my scheduled root canal, and I have no idea how long this is all going to take.  When I learn from the officer—who had somehow seen from his car as mine went by that my inspection was past due, which was what precipitated the whole thing—that my registration, inspection and emissions were all expired, I decide to call my wife to let her know what’s going on and ask her to call the endodontist.  Unable to get my phone out while sitting down, I stand up next to my car and dial the phone.  The cop starts screaming something about getting back in the car unless I wanted a pair of handcuffs.  (Why do they act like that?)  I got back in and, when he inexplicably stalks over anyway to yell at me to get in, I ask if I should call off my appointment.  All he will do in response is yell “Get in the car” again. Understand that I am in the car at the time.  (Why do they act like that?)  Hands shaking, I call my wife and tell her what’s going on.  She does her best to calm me down, and says she will let the endodontist know I will be late.

Ultimately, they tow my car away.  Fifteen minutes later, I am sitting in the chair with a anesthetic swab between my cheek and gum and my car on its way to the police impound lot, about to have a root canal before my wife picks me up to go visit my dying stepfather-in-law.

We finally got to DC and saw him. My mother-in-law showed us pictures of him from earlier in the week, sitting up in bed alertly talking with an old friend who had come in to town to see him.  It was hard to connect the person in those pictures to the sallow, semiconscious figure on the hospital bed in the living room.  It’s astonishing how steeply and abruptly a person with cancer can decline. It makes one acutely aware of one’s mortality.

As I prepared for bed with the Compline, or Night Prayer, service from the Book of Common Prayer, I actually felt more thankful than anything else, strangely enough.  I had been in the present all day, and notwithstanding the state of the present--which teetered between the somber and the surreal--it was a good day.  Far better than the squirrels would have arranged.  Once outside my own head, I was beyond their reach.

Which didn't stop strange things from happening inside my head. Some weeks later I had what now appears to have been a migraine aura—a strange visual disturbance that made it seem as though someone had smeared living, squirming Vaseline all around the periphery of my visual field, while shimmering zig-zag lines occasionally floated into view.  I also felt a little dizzy and shaky. And while none of these symptoms may seem particularly alarming, I had never had a migraine before (that I knew of) and didn’t know what an aura looked like—neither did I know that they are more common in men than in women, or that they tend to occur “later in life.” 

Now, in spite of carrying some extra weight, I am in pretty good health; my blood pressure was 116/63 last time I had it checked, and my resting pulse 64. But when a doctor who happened to be nearby began asking me questions about funny smells or tastes, numbness and tingling—questions that made it clear that he suspected a stroke—I began to panic a little. So many of my aunts and uncles succumbed in their fifties to heart attacks while I was growing up—one of my cousins was thirty years old when she died—that an infarct is more or less my go-to fear.  (That, and the cancer that killed my mother.)   Frightened that I was having a stroke, I became so pale and alarming that my friends called my wife to leave work and take me home.  (It must sound by this point that I spend most of my time being picked up by my wife.  I don’t.)

Of course, I felt ridiculous on the surface—I was, after all, just fine—but deeper down I knew I had something very important to learn from the incident:  I am not reconciled to the inevitability of old age, sickness and death. 

I think this must be the real truth that the squirrels have been charged with hiding.  Don’t let him think about it, they’ve been told. You know what Samuel Johnson said:  When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. If we allow this guy to come to terms with his mortality, he will be unstoppable.  Where’s that remote?

I heard Bhagavan Das tell a story about a sea turtle in the depths of the ocean who comes up and, as if by chance, puts its head through a small wooden ring floating on the surface.  The probability of this happening, he said, is the same as the probability of a human birth.  So a human birth is an immeasurably precious thing, and there are both a staggering opportunity and an immense responsibility bound up with this earthly life.  Consider the familiar Parable of the Talents:
(The Kingdom of Heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
        After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.' His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
        The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.'  His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
        Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, ‘… I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'
        His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant!...
Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.'[vi]

The servants, of course, represent all of us—this is the situation in which we all find ourselves.  When we come to give an account of our lives, what return will we be able to make on the talents with which we have been invested? 

I took my children to a maple sugaring festival along with a friend of theirs from school.  Run by the city, the festival is an impoverished affair without any music, so as I often do I brought along my concertina.  As I sat on a bench and played some old American tunes, a few curious children and their parents stopped to listen.  Off to one side, I heard a mom drawing her little girl’s attention to what I was doing.  “Look at that, honey—do you know what that is?” she asked.  “An old man?” the little girl replied.


Now, any normal forty-five-year-old person might think this funny, in a cute, Art Linkletter sort of way.  But it bothered me. A lot. And it still does.  I’d like to say that I couldn’t tell you why, but it wouldn’t be true.  When I heard the words “old man,” the old man that came to mind was the one Walt Whitman wrote of, “who has lived without purpose, and feels it with bitterness worse than gall.” 

Thank you in advance, but don’t bother telling me this isn’t true, because I know it isn’t.  I have two fantastic children and a wonderful wife who puts up with my mishegoss; I am still making music and doing my best to alleviate the suffering of my fellow creatures. But in spite of everything I have always thought I believed, I still struggle to find peace with the fact that I am probably more than halfway through my life without anything to show that I am, in any worldly sense, a “success.”  I haven’t set the world on fire! I haven’t “made a difference!”  If I were George Bailey, I’d have gone to jail!

Insufferable, I know.  And yes, I am mentally ill.  But I don’t believe I am alone in this.  Isn’t our whole culture frantic to keep us distracted?   There are now video screens at the gas pump. We can watch movies on our phones.  A former vice-presidential candidate is apparently pitching a reality show.  Shopping malls surpassed historical sites as tourist destinations years ago.  The interactive TV walls Ray Bradbury envisioned in Fahrenheit 451 have become a reality (as have many other things in that remarkably prescient book.)  News has degenerated into entertainment, while entertainment has been elevated to news. 

Of course, the circus master Sleary in Dickens’s Hard Times was right:  people must be amused; they can’t always working, nor always learning. But we as a society are, as sociologist Neil Postman put it, “amusing ourselves to death.”  What are we as a people trying so desperately not to face?

Yes, we don’t want to think about death.  And there are a lot of frightening things afoot these days that are hard to confront, from climate change to resistant disease germs to transforming demographics.  Our children will inherit an unstable world from us after we die, which will not be very long from now. 

But I think there is more to it than that. I believe that not only do we not want to think about death—we don’t want to think about life, either.  We have a high calling, we humans.  When my children try to sneak away from the table without drinking their milk, I remind them that a farmer and a cow worked hard to make that milk, and it won’t do to waste it.  Well, the universe has labored to make us, and yet we let ourselves go to waste.  Though we don’t like to think about it, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."[vii]  And in order not to face the charge we have to keep, we allow the squirrels to direct our attention here, there, everywhere but the present moment—which is, as they know, precisely where the treasure is. Now is the day of salvation.[viii]

In the midst of life, we are in death, the Book of Common Prayer tells us.  Our lives are precious, and they are finite.  Work while you have the light.

So I’m going to stay aware of the squirrels; they can change the channel, but they cannot make me watch.  They cannot hide themselves along with the things they’re trying to keep me from seeing.  Even in the midst of distraction, I’m going to keep doing my best to redirect my attention to the present moment and the revelations it contains. Life, as poet R. S. Thomas put it,

…is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The squirrels got nothing on that.

[ii] A nod to Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird
[iii] Baptismal vows, Book of Common Prayer
[iv] Vivekananda, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.
[vi] Matthew 25: 14-29, edited for length
[vii] Romans 8:22


  1. "Let loose the squirrels of war," is one of those little jewels that would make your blog worth reading even if it didn't have all of the insight, scholarship, and so on.

    My squirrels work at a much more serene and labored pace. I often don't even know it's happening until someone lets me know that I've been staring into the middle distance for quite a while. It's more like a mental version the migraine aura, where I have no mental peripheral vision--just the task at hand, and a whole lot of thoughts I navigate through, trying not to see.

    I will refrain, per your request, from correcting you on your concept of "old" and/or "middling". For me, it's like those compound-interest charts that they sometimes make us look at at investment seminars. We don't compare ourselves to zero, we compare ourselves to where we thought we'd be on the curve by this point, adding in the exponential growth. There are people who suffered actual losses during this period, but that's little comfort as we try to catch up to another version of ourselves.

  2. Those alternate selves always seem to have it so good!


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