Fiction

How to Cut Your Life to Pieces: A Self Help Guide for the Last Few Zero Years

Prologue

In sixth grade you found yourself on your red Schwinn again, the one with the banana seat that had a busted seam so that the foam pad stuck out the side when you sat on it. You stopped outside North Middle school with one foot on a pedal and the other inside a two-square box, and you watched a flock of geese fly in a V, heading south. The birds had an instinct for this; they knew where and how to position themselves in relation to each other. The mass of them passing over your head was a wonder that made you stop and watch even though you knew that you were running late, and even though you’d seen it all before. The second bell had already rung, and you would be given another official tardy, but you didn’t care. This time you stopped and watched the geese, listened to them honk and bleat as they passed. You took a deep breath, adjusted the straps on your nylon backpack, and then saw that you’d left the pack unzipped. You checked to make sure your three-ring binder was still there, that your sheets of stapled homework assignments and plastic ziplock bag of pens were all still in place, but found it was all missing. When you looked up again the geese were gone and it was time to go into North Middle School and face your first period teacher, but you just couldn’t. Not this way.

You set your watch back.

****

Part One: How to Win Friends and Influence People

You’re not going to get any better on your own. You will never have more sex appeal, money, power, or happiness than you have right now, or if, by some miracle, you do stumble upon a way to slightly improve your circumstances, other problems will inevitably arise that will more than sufficiently undercut the isolated improvement. The gurus, millionaires, models, and other dubious celebrities who want to sell you a better life in twelve steps, through positive thinking, or by means of an organic enema are not your friends. There is only one system that you can rely on, but it’s not a system of psychological principles, prayers, or investment strategies. It is a system of suppression, of alienation, and ultimately, of death.

Your life, as it exists right now, is insignificant, isolated, fractured, and cannot be saved.

My life, as it exists right now, is insignificant, isolated, fractured, and cannot be saved. I’m sitting at my personal computer, listening to music selected for me by a sophisticated bit of code. After having put in a ten-hour day sitting at a similar desk and working with a similar, if fundamentally different, string of zeros and ones, I find myself trying to find words to string together in order to change it. I’m trying to find the right mood, the right tone.

Two nights ago I dreamt that I was living in a beautiful house made of driftwood painted yellow. There was a staircase, and at the top of this staircase with its perfectly rectangular and white rails running up the side, protecting me from falling, there was another man, another family, living there. And I was shown a piece of wood, a sculpture, that I could see into. And seeing it, seeing the wood cut into a triangle, painted yellow, and hung at the top of the stairway as decoration, I was exhilarated and terrified. There was something uncanny that made me scream a high-pitched scream, like the sound of something sliding across metal. An unnaturally long scream that contained no anxiety. A scream from another realm.

This is not a self help book you’re reading—it’s more of a confession. It’s one o’clock in the morning, and I’m sitting at my desk with an uncomfortable papier-mâché mask over my real face even though there is nobody around to see it. Right now, this instant, I’m wearing a Kabuki mask given to me by my mother-in-law. My mother in law is a New Age expat who, through her third marriage, has found herself trapped in Japan. She is an expert in Reiki, knows the Secret, and has taken a job giving facial massages to other American women who are similarly trapped, along with their new Japanese businessmen husbands, in the technological wonderland that is Tokyo. The mask has a permanently jolly expression, and has small eyeholes. The eyeholes are small because the face I’m wearing is always squinting from smiling so hard. The jaw is hinged. I can make it move, make the mask simulate the movements of speech, by moving my real mouth.

****

Part Two: The Marketplace and You

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

How do people get to a place of health? These days it’s difficult to hold firm and go on with the charade, but one good first step is to figure out what is wrong (if it isn’t obvious to you already) by identifying which parts of your life are most affected by your problem. Mental health professionals have developed various classification schemes useful for describing the important aspects of people’s lives, and while it may seem cliché, a reasonably comprehensive summary list of life’s various aspects or domains can present lasting happiness.

In order to better help you appreciate the importance and scope of this, I have included a list of questions to ask yourself and a few exercises.

Question One: Do you find it hard to concentrate on one thing for a long time?

Your answer seems to point to experiences in childhood. For example, let’s say that in sixth grade you found yourself on your red Schwinn, the one with the banana seat that had a busted seam so that the foam pad stuck out the side when you sat on it.

You stopped outside North Middle school, put one foot on a pedal and the other inside the two-square box, and you watched a flock of geese fly overhead in a V, heading south.

You were going to earn another official tardy, which would bring down your grade in your English, but you didn’t care. This time you stopped and watched the geese, listened to them honk and bleat as they passed. You took a deep breath. You adjusted the straps on your nylon backpack. Your backpack was zipped up, sealed tight. Everything was in its place: your three-ring binder, stapled homework assignment, and plastic ziplock bag of pens were all there.

Your first period class was a literature class, a class on fables like the grasshopper and the ant or the Taylor and the Giant, and while you enjoyed the reading, got a lot out of Mrs. Fuller’s lectures, her descriptions of the genealogy of Cinderella and the tortoise and the Hare, you were still only scraping by a C grade because you could not find a way to complete all your assignments. So many of the worksheets and papers were merely busy work, mindless to the point of obscenity, and when you confronted Mrs. Fuller with the fact that you’d managed to understand and absorb the material without the tedious repetition her assignments required, she agreed that you had, indeed, learned, but insisted that since you would conceivably need the ability to take meticulous notes when you were in college she could not alter your marks simply because you had mastered the material.

“You must learn to follow instructions,” she said. “You won’t be able to get by if you rely on your native intelligence alone.”

Stopped outside of school to watch the geese despite the fact that you were running late and standing still breathing the cool morning air, listening to the bird noises and the gravel moving as you swung your front wheel back and forth was an act of rebellion against Mrs. Fuller and fables and meticulous notebooks full of meticulous notes.

You walked into Mrs. Fuller’s class, knowing that you were late, but not feeling the least bit contrite and without hanging your head or trying to be inconspicuous. You took your seat in the front of the class, making a loud squeak from the friction of your chair being pushed back, metal feet on the chair scraping against the tile floor, and when Mrs. Fuller asked you where you’d been, you said that you’d seen the geese flying south and that it was amazing how the birds knew how to arrange themselves just by using their native intelligence. Mrs. Fuller was perhaps moved by your description of the birds, but was not moved enough to offer you a chance to re-take the final exam. The exam was timed and you’d missed the first forty-five minutes of it.

“You have ten minutes left. You better start writing if you want to pass the test.”

You’d known that you were late, known that you’d made yourself later still, but forty-five minutes? That didn’t seem possible. You looked up at the clock and saw that it confirmed what the teacher had said. You looked at your Casio digital watch and it was the same thing.

The first question on your test was this: “Why did Cinderella have such tiny feet? What was it about tiny feel that people in China found to be so beautiful?”

You were in a bind. Unable to finish the test or find a rational solution, you turned to an irrational solution. You reset your watch, set it back by one-half hour. But when you pressed the little silver button, pressed into the indent on your Casio with the sharp end of your #2 pencil, you changed the date along with the minute. You moved your watch to an earlier point and somehow went back along with it.

In 1934 the administrators of school district 11 gathered up the yearbooks, newspapers, slide-rules, paintings, and other ephemera that had been produced during the first year of North Junior’s existence, sealed it all in a metal canister and then set the canister behind the granite block that sat along the front façade at the entrance. This was a time capsule, and they chiseled instructions that the block should be pulled out of place and the canister broken open in 50 years time.

On the morning of January 7th, 1984, you stood outside the school, behind the yellow tape that marked off the spot of the front of the school where the machinery and construction crew did the work of removing the stone, and listened to the Walkman cassette player you’d received for Christmas as the principal of North Middle school gave a speech about the significance of the past and tradition and how innovation must always hold on to the central truths of American education. You couldn’t quite drown out the speech with Matthew Wilder’s one hit, although you turned the music to the highest volume you could without distorting the lyrics into an unintelligible jumble.

“Last night I had the strangest dream.” You could make out every word of the song. You could make out every word of the principal’s speech. You could see your breath and pulled your dirty blue down jacket closed. You stuffed your hands in your pockets and held the coat closed, as the zipper was broken.

Paul Moorhouse, the fat greasy kid with huge pimples and a tendency towards meanness and vocalizing his love of the Republican Party stepped up next to you. He shivered against the cold and asked what you were listening to on your Walkman.

You told him the call letters of the radio station, and he asked to borrow your Walkman so he, too, could listen. Cindy Lauper started singing, and you handed the player over to him.

“Keeps your ears warm,” Paul said when the song ended and he reluctantly handed the Walkman back.

The principal held up a newspaper from 1934, the school paper Pen and Ink, and you squinted against the sunlight that was just making its way down and around the front of the building, pulling the shadow from the building back.

“History,” the principal said.

And that’s when the sense of deja vu hit you. You’d been bored by the past before, seen the unsmiling faces of your grand-parents contemporaries as school children before. Worse, you were reliving a commercial for low-fat yogurt on your Walkman.

“What shall we put in the capsule now and who will your children be when we open it again in fifty years? You’ll be older; old. What will you have done with your lives? What do we want to tell ourselves, remind ourselves of, later on?”

You glanced at your Casio watch the take it off your wrist and used the buckle to press the indented button again.

You could see your breath. You handed the Walkman and Cindy Lauper’s song “So Unusual” over to Paul Moorhouse and watched him shivering in the dirt around where the machines were working at pulling out the past from behind a marble block.

“I sailed away to China, in a little row boat to find ya,” you sang under your breath. You sang the pop song you’d heard earlier.

****

Part Three: How to Track Your Disappointment (an exercise)

  1. Write a list of your various accomplishments, punch a hole in the top left hand corner and attach this list to a balloon.
  2. Drink a cup of apple juice with your two-year-old toddler while watching educational television on PBS or Nickelodeon. Sesame Street with its monster puppets or any computer-animated movie or program will work just fine. Drink from your own sippy cup, and wonder if the smiling Elmo is painted on with lead paint. Encourage your child to say the words “Chairman Mao.” Try to get the kid to say, “Anyhow.”
  3. Launch the helium balloon with your accomplishments tied on from your front yard. Listen as your toddler says. “Bye-bye. Bye-bye.”
  4. Consider the reality and finality of Death.

****

Part Four: Time Travel Trope

Most fantasy/Sci-Fi stories are exercises in wish-fulfillment rather than rational or reasoned thought experiments. For instance, time travel is a common trope in Sci-Fi, and since H.G. Wells, the story of a time traveler has been a projection, a way to satisfy the reader’s desire for immortality and power. A typical time traveler visits periods that will occur well after the rationally expected date of his or her death, and can go back to visit those who are already dead. These stories solve the problem of history by fabricating utterly modern and thereby classless individuals whose ingenuity places them above history. Separated from his or her peers and regardless of whether or not he or she visits a known past or an entirely alien future, the time traveler is a reactionary and alienating figure.

However, there is another type of time traveler, a natural freak who, through no willed action but entirely by accident, stumbles into a fissure in reality and is then tossed this way and that by the currents of his life. In this kind of time travel story the trope has more to do with narrative technique than any particular ideology; however, both types of time travelers are isolated, and neither belong anywhere. Both confront or are confronted by inhuman forces that constitute both our history and our future.

What is missing is any opportunity for minded collective action. What is missing is a route to a history shaped by human social desire, mutual support, solidarity, and ultimately an understanding of connection.

Nietzsche imagined the world as a perpetual rerun. He posited that the primary duty of man was to act in creative ways that are in accord with internal principles, individually created, so that one could withstand the eternal repetition that life presented.

In this story you’ve been given a magic watch that empowers you to set back time, to recreate or revisit the past moments you’ve already set up. On the other hand, these moments can be altered in detail but cannot, fundamentally, be changed. Resetting the clock allows you to enjoy the passing of geese, to relive your first kiss, but as long as the structure of the whole remains intact, the device will not provide any chance for escape. This is your life alone and as such it is your prison—past, present, or future.

****

Part Five: Kate

The geese were flying over St. Mary’s Catholic High school, and you watched from upstairs. You stood behind a sheet of safety glass, in the main hallway, and looked up. You’d flashed forward about three years. You took out your wallet and looked with pride at your driver’s license. You searched for your Casio watch and found it in your pocket and not on your wrist. The plastic watchband was old, cracked, and partial. The geese flying overhead and the main hall that led to the stairway that led to the classrooms up and downstairs was familiar, another common stop. You saw the geese through the big sheet of glass, but to your left the thinner rectangle of glass was stained yellow. The glass was irregular, bubbled.

You were waiting for a girl. Not the first time, but this time you knew and you waited for Katie. The girl from your home room impressed you daily by wearing tight jeans and talking trash about her exploits, and you knew she was about to put her hand on your shoulder. Even though she’d never shown any interest before—she was about to suggest that the two of you skip out. She was about to tell you that her parents both worked and that the two of you could go to her house and make out without being disturbed.

You tried to remember what time it was the last time you adjusted your watch. Did you reset it when you were thirteen at North Middle School, or were you twenty-seven and leaving the Rose City Pub too late and alone? You can’t remember what you wanted to do, or why you came back or forward. But the original desire, the rush of blood, and quickness of breath is the same as always. You wanted to go with her the first time, every time.

“We can’t just skip out. We’ll get in trouble,” you tell her. The words are automatic. You regret them immediately.

“Sure we can.”

“Now?”

“Why not. Don’t you want to?”

“I don’t know.”

Katie had long straight hair, slightly crooked teeth, and not much of a bust. She was on the metal and dope side of high school even when she dressed in preppy clothes. There was something about the way she wore an izod shirt, maybe the way her long curled hair fell around her shoulders, or the way her collar was frayed, that gave an impression of badness. There would’ve been nothing better than to skip school and end up smoking a bowl with her in her bedroom. Nothing better than to put your hand up her faded purple izod shirt and try to work your fingers under her bra.

“Now?” you asked. And then the bell rang. Before she had a chance to convince you the hall was full of people and it was too late.

How had you managed to get out into the hall during class to begin with? What was the full context of this situation? You tried to set your watch back to find out but ended up reliving the geese. You ended up back with the first set of geese, the ones over North Middle school. And your backpack was unzipped again.

You could relive your life, but you couldn’t control it. Your fingers weren’t delicate enough to operate the controls precisely, and you weren’t sure what you’d want to change or do if you could develop the kind of fine motor skills required to master the device.

You reset the date again, flashed ahead to 1998, to that bar you’d been, or would be, drunk at. The Pabst was still cold.

****

Part Six: The Fulcrum

Schizophrenia is a disease that induces an overproduction of meaning. Whereas the depressive is mired in blackness and monochromatic despair, and the sociopath is numb—she is blind to the signals of inner feelings from others—the schizophrenic is a font of multi-colored ideas, a profoundly empathetic instrument of sensitive observation. For example:

A schizophrenic woman found a swizzle stick shaped like a devil’s pitchfork on her nightstand, and rather than wondering why her husband was out drinking somewhere without telling her, instead of worrying about possible infidelity or alcoholism, this woman calculated an absurdity. Seeing a devil’s pitchfork, she deduced that her husband was a devil worshipper, a demon, or perhaps the devil himself.

They say this is a schizophrenic era, but most are content to perceive less rather than more. Most reject the polka-dotted tapestry of false logic, magical thinking, and projection that the schizophrenic wraps around the world, and instead devote their lives to winding springs. Most accept the disposal of their lives by others as legitimate.

Schizophrenics suspect something is up.

In 1991 you worked for Greenpeace. You took a trip to Northern California, just outside of San Francisco, with a few other Greenpeace employees. About six of you jumped in a VW van, three men and three women, and headed south from Portland to a campground called Blair Ridge. Each of you, except the driver, dosed purple blotter to pass the time. But while the rest flirted, planned, and explained their visions, you tried to read a book of bizarre cartoons. The images on the pages were more alive than the people around you. One of the women had her shirt over her head, her bra unsnapped so the other man could massage her back, but this was but a momentary distraction.

You watched as the earth was invaded by a fleet of urban homes, all of them identical, little boxes. The whole globe was covered in Brownstone walk-ups with windows for eyes and open doors, open mouths. The earth was one color, the color of rooftops. The oceans disappeared. The land was one round shape. There were no continents. Housewives, millions or billions, came out their front doors, curlers in their hair, to check their mailboxes, but their mailboxes were empty. Inside each box was a black, barren void. Inside the mailboxes was like outer space. A fleet of houses appeared between stars and made its way to earth.

“Do you believe in reincarnation,” the woman looked over her bare shoulder to ask you.

“The world is going to collapse under the concrete,” you said.

“I can remember another life. In Eygpt,” she said.

“We’re going the wrong way. They’re watching, seeing where we’re headed. They are trying to save us. To send us a message.”

You took out your Casio watch as the van pulled into a 7-11 parking lot. The asphalt sparkled in the sun.

You set your watch back.

The Telecafe was a place where you smoked cigarettes, drank sugary coffee drinks, and talked about yourself if only through the subterfuge of politics, movies, or other intellectual subjects. According to your digital watch the year was still 1991. It was June, and you were twenty years old.

You sat there, sipped from a mocha, and read aloud:

“‘Thales thought everything was composed of water, but his erroneous answer is much less significant than his question (namely, “what is everything composed of?”) and what is even more interesting than either Thales’ question or his answer are the presuppositions behind his question. Thales question assumes that if there is change then there must be something behind change that itself does not change. If there is a ‘many’ then somehow there must be a one.'” You took another sip of coffee. “Interesting book,” you said.

“It’s called Does the Center Hold. I bought it for a class last semester, but I’m still reading it,” the girl who sat across from you said.

You put down your coffee, glanced at your watch, and then looked up at the girl. You wanted to tell her how pretty you thought she was. You wanted to take her back to your studio apartment around the block, but knew it wasn’t going to work out that way.

Her name was Brion. She had dyed red hair, a tattoo of a crow on her shoulder, and a nose ring. She was way ahead of you. She was hip and stylish. She introduced you to philosophy.

“Can I borrow it?” you asked and held up the book.

“Okay, but I want it back.”

You looked across at Brion, remembered that she was on the verge of falling for, or at least sleeping with, a kid named Nate. He was another Greenpeace employee, and thinking of her with him, you decided to steal her philosophy book. You always decided to steal her philosophy book.

You set your watch a couple of weeks forward and ended up at a Greenpeace retreat in California again.

You were buying LSD from Brion’s new boyfriend and thinking about philosophy and digital watches while Nate took a hit off a joint and offered it over to you. You waved off the joint and put the tab under your tongue. You thought about what it would be like, what would happen, if you flipped ahead to your own death. You decided to give it a try, set your watch ahead, but then got scared and pressed the button too soon.

A couple hours later you were in the Mess Hall. All of the employees were gathered together to drink and dance and talk about themselves. You drank a couple of beers and then took a seat next to a girl who looked quite like Brion, only her hair was dyed black and she didn’t have a nose ring or as pretty a face. She had the same style though. It was still 1991.

You pressed the button on your Casio watch and flashed back to a similar Mess Hall in 1988. You were counselor at an Easter Seal camp in Arkansas and you, the group of you, were holding hands in a large circle. The counselors and the retards (easter seal counselors universally referred to the mentally handicapped as retards), autistics, and deaf kid held hands and slowly moved in a circle singing “Simple Gifts.”

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”

One of your kids, a severely autistic kid named Chad who couldn’t talk and had a tendency to seizure, started to drool and you watched his eyes glaze over. The crowd of you spun around the lyrics of Simple Gifts, kept going, and Chad spluttered. He took off shrieking, ran a faster circle inside the larger circle, and made monkey noises until, finally, he fell to the wood floor kicking and biting and foaming.

The moment was too much for him.

You set your watch forward again to 1991, the Greenpeace retreat, where you were tripping on acid. The girl who looked like, but was not, Brion asked you if you believed teachers should be allowed to sleep with their students. You told her that you were game for anything.

“But I’m not a teacher,” she told you.

“Maybe I am?”

“I don’t think so.”

You moved on to get yourself another beer, but found that there were flickering lights on the wood floor. It looked like there were leaves, neon green and yellow leaves, floating down from the ceiling and falling in front of you to make a path. You followed the lights out the Mess Hall door and into the night, into the grass and toward the lake. You glanced down at your watch and noticed that it was blinking midnight, flashing an out-of-order signal. It needed to be reset.

You followed the neon leaves falling at your feet and became convinced that you were about to meet the entities or entity behind your time traveling. You wondered if they would turn out to be aliens, angels, or just Japanese.

The neon leaves were leading you nowhere. You were not to be saved. You were drunk, stoned, crazed, lost, and starting to panic. You pressed the button on your watch and were relieved to flashback to Brion at the Telecafe. You read aloud to her.

“‘I never can catch myself except in perceptions, and can never observe anything but these perception . . . but setting aside some metaphysics of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle of perceptions.'”

“I want it back,” Brion said.

You got up to refill your coffee cup and find some matches. You looked around for someone else to talk to, somebody who might be more interested in what you were going through.

You came back to the acid trip at the retreat. You suspected that the retreat was important. Even though you’d had your digital watch for over a decade, you suspected that the Greenpeace retreat was when you’d first discovered how to travel back. Your memory of the past, your memory of past trips to the future, your memories of the present, were a jumble and inconclusive, but the feeling of novelty remained each time you visited the moment of the Greenpeace retreat.

There was a man about your age, a boy really, on the stage on the north side of the mess hall, and you found yourself up on the stage next to him. This was where the music was coming from, and the kid had three cases of cassettes that he was pilfering and a large boom box. It was, he explained, merely a matter of selection. He explained the virtues of David Bowie and Jane’s Addiction, and you listened anxiously. You were anxious because you were about to embarrass yourself. Onstage with your doppelganger, he was more confident and athletic than you were, but you concluded he was your doppelganger. Despite this, you began to panic.

You were about to embarrass yourself, talk gibberish to him, and he was going to realize that you were out of your mind on drugs. He was going to fuck with you…with your head. He suggested that if you wanted to know the truth you’d have to get naked first, and while his aim was humiliation you took this as a come-on. You couldn’t decide whether it would be masturbation if you were to have sex with him, or whether it would be just plain gay sex, or whether it would be rape. Were you about to be raped?

You took off your pull-over hoodie and then stopped yourself, too scared to go on. The kid with the cassette tapes laughed at you. You were tripping, drunk, and not sure what time it was. You left the stage and then turned back to the kid and informed him that he was imaginary, a figment of your imagination. A memory written on a blank page, he was not real.

You were real. You were writing it all down, making the selections, taking cassette tapes from their cases.

And you knew you were on the verge of blacking out. You were just about at the point when the pen lifted from the page and left a gap. There was nothing after that next beer. Your body would keep moving, but you would be gone.

This was the center, there was a cosmic significance to the events going on around you. There really were signs and omens and synchronicities, but you saw the pitchfork swizzle stick and assumed your husband was the devil. You saw a path of light leading into the woods and assumed you were about to be abducted.

You grabbed yourself another beer. One too many.

****

Part Seven: Self Help

Question: Is it possible to make a connection?

Question: Do we have to be so alone?

****

Epilogue

In sixth grade, you found yourself on your red Schwinn again, the one with the banana seat that had a busted seam so that the foam pad stuck out the side when you sat on it. You stopped outside North Middle school with one foot on a pedal and the other inside a two-square box, and you watched a flock of geese fly in a V, heading south. The birds had an instinct for this; they knew where and how to position themselves in relation to each other.

You didn’t know how to position yourself in relation to others, or even how to position yourself in your own head, in relation to your own life. There were gaps—time did not run in one direction, but looped back. Time ran off to the left or right, veering well outside the frame.

You wanted to help yourself, to improve, but there was no easy or natural way to achieve this. Norman Vincent Peale once stated that, “One of the greatest moments in anybody’s developing experience is when he no longer tries to hide from himself but determines to get acquainted with himself as he really is.”

You looked up and the geese were gone. It was time to go into North Middle School and face your first period teacher.

You set your watch back.


Originally published at Farrago’s Wainscot