JON WAS AWAKENED BY THE SOUND of his three-year-old son Scott crying in his room. He opened one eye, peering hopefully at his wife. Nope, she was conked out for the night. Half asleep, Jon rolled out of bed and shuffled to his son’s room. Scott was sobbing uncontrollably and babbling, “My leg. I-I-I lost my leg.”
Jon guessed that his son was having a nightmare, so he tried to awaken him gently. “Son, wake up,” he said softly. “Wake up, Scott; you’re having a bad dream.”
But Scotty was awake and sobbing harder than ever. “I lost m-m-my leg,” he cried, barely able to get the words out.
Jon squelched his temptation to laugh. “Well, Son,” he said, stroking the boy’s head, “what makes you think you’ve lost your leg?”
With that Scott pealed back the blanket that covered his little body. And there it was. “LOOK!” he screamed. Scotty clutched an empty pajama pant leg in his fist, waving the flannel “flag” in horror.
At that point Jon did laugh. Somehow, in the middle of the night, little Scotty had managed to stuff both limbs into a single leg of his roomy pajama bottoms. For a moment, it looked for all the world as though he had lost his leg.
It is funny how a child can scare himself silly over the most innocuous event. And, yet, when it comes to creative misery, children have no monopoly on the market. To tell the truth, I think adults have come up with some real doozies. Here are some of my favorites.
Nocturne Willies. It is the middle of the night. Suddenly I hear a strange scratching noise. I immediately clench all my toes and imagine that a depraved maniac has escaped from the state penitentiary.
Of all the houses in the world, he has chosen mine to violate. I envision that he has a particular perverted fondness for citizens of my precise temperament and body shape. But I refuse to investigate. I might discover the noise was only the cat seeking entry, and that would mess up a perfectly good misery.
Spider Phobia. I am working quietly at my desk. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a spindly spider surreptitiously stealing up the wall. This is the perfect moment to create a flaming phobia. I instantly imagine that the hairy beast is a rare and deadly arthropod, capable of disguising itself as an innocent daddy-longlegs. The monster is equipped with an internal radar system that tracks humans with loose-fitting garments. It is able to pounce from here to Miami, careen down my shirt, and nest in my navel where it will multiply and order out for pizza. I decide to freak out.
Keeping Up the Front. I am taking an entitled Sunday afternoon nap when the telephone rings. Because my voice sounds a little groggy, the caller asks if I were sleeping. Aha, the sterling opportunity to be miserable and make the intruder the unwitting villain. “No, I was just rereading a journal article on the renaissance of Aristotelian philosophy.” This is an artful dodge. In one well-formed sentence I have achieved three outcomes:
(a) guilt for lying about being awake,
(b) shame for pretending to be more scholarly than William F. Buckley, and © misery for allowing the imagined opinions of the caller to rule my life. Wow! A three-banger!
Misery through Alienation. This is a dating game tactic I discovered in Dan Greenburg’s delightful book, How to Make Yourself Miserable. It is characterized by the suitor’s appeal for rejection. With minor variations, the dialogue twitches along like this.
Allen: You probably have something better to do, so I guess you wouldn’t want to, like, go to movies on Friday night.
Mary: As a matter of fact, I have nothing planned for next Friday.
Allen: So it would be like scraping the bottom of the bucket to go with me, right?
Mary: I didn’t say that.
Allen: But that’s what you meant.
Mary: (Hesitantly.) No, not at all. But now that I think about it, I do have a lot going on this weekend.
Allen: Sure, kick me while I’m down; I’m used to it. I must have been crazy to think you would actually go out with me anyway. I hope you and your jillion fans will be very happy together.
Beautiful. I have managed to deprecate myself and insult Mary at the same time. This is a powerful technique. Both of us should be miserable for at least two-to-three days. Well, there they are: my all-star misery lineup. Understand that this has been an extremely short course in the art of adult miserablizing.
The techniques are, after all, as prolific as human inspiration. One guy I know is persuaded that the bank teller deliberately slows down when he chooses to stand in her line. Another acts as though the “jerk” that cut him off in traffic was following him for weeks, waiting for just that opportunity to burn his shorts. I even met a woman at a picnic who took personal responsibility for a turn in the weather.
I realize all this stuff sounds pretty silly-kind of like losing a leg in the middle of the night. Still, with a little effort I can make myself perfectly crazy-or perfectly sane. One way or the other, it’s all in my head-and not up my sleeve.
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