Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sore Season

My mother, otherwise an enlightened woman, believed deeply that people in show business die in threes over some loosely defined period of time.  No especially prominent Death Trios come to mind at present, but I remember many times feeling a kind of forbidden thrill when she announced that this or that movie star had passed through the Iron Door, and who would the other two be?  

I can't say I put much faith in this notion back then, although, as a budding young snob, I kept hoping for the week that would claim all of the Three Stooges.  Still, as I've grown (much) older and (somewhat) wiser, I've come to realize that there's something to this idea that certain kinds of events come in clusters.

By the way, if you've plowed this far in the hope of something enlightening, let me suggest that there are many better things you could be doing.  This post is unrelentingly trivial.

Ten days ago I was out for a run in Santa Monica when I stepped on something that stopped me so quickly I practically kept running right through the front of my skin.  I bent down and picked up a twenty-dollar bill, neatly folded into quarters.  A couple of days after that, it was two ones.  Then, for a few days, it was deep blue marbles, one per day over the length of a block until I had five of them.  The Age of Marble ended, fittingly, with a large, bright steel ball-bearing.  Today, I stopped and picked up a five, which I have to remember to take out of the pocket of my running shorts before I throw them in the wash.

Okay, so it's not life-changing, although the 27 bucks came in handy and the marbles and ball-bearing are rolling around on my table as I write.  So there was an impact of sorts: not a bullet hole, perhaps, but something like a temporary dimple.

When I was in college, I became inescapably aware that time is a sort of string we flow along, smooth for long stretches and then interrupted by knots of various sizes, complexity, and discomfort potential.  (This notion, by the way, found its way into the upcoming Poke book, The Fear Artist.)  The nice smooth stretches are those most underrated periods of life, the uneventful ones.  The knots are when things happen.

What brought this home to me was the realization, in my freshman year, that I had what I came to think of as Sore Seasons.  Out of nowhere, I'd cut myself on a piece of broken glass (I pretty much lived barefoot in those days) and within a few hours I would have bumped my head on the corner of a cabinet, bitten my tongue, gotten stung by one of the 38 zillion wasps that thought I had moved into their house back behind the campus, and/or hit my funnybone repeatedly until the whole arm felt like I had a finger caught in a wall outlet.

About the time I was feeling like all three of the Stooges jammed together, the Sore Season would mutate into subtler insults, not so much physical as metaphysical.  My roommate would bring home a pet alligator, maybe a foot long, and set up a little carnivore's theme park in the tub.  My cat would poop on my earphones.  (She did this several times to register displeasure at some insult known only to cats.)  I'd get into a small automobile accident.  I once capped a spectacular Sore Season by having three minor accidents in a single night, when I was driving a cab.  I dropped off the cab, somewhat battered, around 3 AM and went home, only to be invited back for a talk the next day.  Turned out they wanted my hat.  They sent me my check a week later, minus the damage to the car.  It was for $23.77.  I should have kept the hat.

The notion of event clusters holds true on a much larger scale, too.  American political life has arranged itself naturally into Sore Seasons: four years of low-level mendacity and wars-of-the-week interrupted by the national snapping-turtle match of an election.  In an election year, men and women who believe in nothing but getting elected and who live on a scale most people can't even imagine, roll up their sleeves, hunker down, and become jus' folks, sharing our pain that our homes and jobs and children's futures have been stolen by the very companies -- quelle surprise! -- that are funding their campaigns.  They fulminate against China, the country to whom they turn for loans to replace the money they've wasted on pork and useless wars.  They promise to make our great nation great again, without stopping to parse how you can make a great nation great again if it hasn't lost at least some of its greatness.  And it seems to go on forever, but it doesn't.  It just lasts until the end of the sore season.

Sore season.  Knots on the string.  It's taken me all this time to realize that the Three Stooges weren't kidding at all.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. I think I might have been in your cab that night. Quite a ride you take us on.

  2. The notion of things coming in 3's is very Irish of the Catholic variety. It has to do with the Trinity. My mother was not superstitious; she considered that a pagan trait. The did believe in the trinity of events but it didn't have to be deaths. It merely had to be something that grabbed attention.

    I don't think of life as a string with knots. It seems more like a roller coaster designed by a demented teenager (as are they all) who designs something that goes for long stretches on a gently undulating track broken up by times when the car is perched on top of a mountain with an incredible view of great things, then plunges rapidly into said teenagers version of a flume - people get soaked along the way.

    You are correct in stating that we miss how lovely the view is along the gentle part of the track, and we don't give the highs credit for being as joyous as they are, but we never forget the plunges that soak us till we are limp.

    If you had a dog, the earphones would be in pieces. This would be annoying but far less gross.

  3. Actually, Sore Season (or deaths in 3's, or any other event clumping) is a statistical certainty. To avoid them, things would have to happen with unbelievably constant, steady regularity, and that's just not going to happen. Statistics and bell curves 'require' that 'noticeable' events clump together... except for those occasional times when statistics tell us that they WON'T, of course.

    Here's a subject for a future column (since we're reflecting on times past): How many out-and-out epiphanies have you had in your life? What were they? When did they happen? I've had very few (I've always been a very smart fellow, so that makes it harder to have an epiphany, you know?) But one has always stood out in my memory: it was my first or second year of college, and a small group of us were crossing the street in front of our dorm, and between one step and the next, I *KNEW* that happiness is not something that comes TO us, but is something that comes OUT of us, that it's a CHOICE, and we can choose to be happy (or choose NOT to be) at any moment, regardless of what is happening in our lives.

  4. Hi, Jeff -- were you the guy who got rained on? The cab was equipped with heavy rubber bumpers filled with water, so when you hit something some of the force was deflected upward, popping the caps on some holes on top of the bumper and shooting the water into the air. If you were the drunk guy in the back, you were the one who watched me turn on my wipers and then said, "Shit, it wasn't even cloudy when I started drinking." Somehow, Jeff, this feels like you.

    Beth, threes are magical, or have been in virtually every cultural tradition in human history, although I've never really looked to find out why. I like the roller coaster metaphor, but it's got one problem: on a roller coaster, you always know the drop is coming, but the string actually fools us into forgetting that, bringing us, as Dorothy Parker called then, fresh new hells at irregular intervals. And the thing about the earphones is that the cat might as well have torn them up, since the odds against my ever putting on my head a pair of phones that a cat has defecated on can best be expressed as a negative cubed number.

    Everett, epiphanies, is it? I love yours, so I'll probably let some time lapse so you don't top me too effortlessly. I had several that literally changed my life thanks in part to some finely-ground cactus back in the bad old 70s, and since then little nudges of enlightenment since, usually of the "universe is perfectly balanced" kind. Also, many that have to do with my work and the nature of the (my?) creative process, which, like everyone's, is deeply mysterious.

  5. Someone said that life was a mystery. There is that famous Chinese saying "in every crisis there is opportunity." I suspect that rolling with punches, and getting through things builds our confidence, so that we can believe in our abilities, helps us create or work harder at it, knowing that something will happen. What you guys do is a wonder to me, and how much pleasure it gives to me, is again part of the mystery. And ultimately, the gift.

  6. Mr. Hallinan, in connection with your "feelings" as to my possible condition on the night in question, I invoke the fifth. Or perhaps it was a quart? All I remember of that ride was some cactus chewing driver with a great hat, hallucinating over some make believe cat pissing on his dashboard radio.

    I tried to humor the distraught soul by suggesting, "Maybe the cat doesn't like the music? You oughta try earphones."

    Then it started raining.

  7. Your mother was right, Tim. Celebrities die in threes. While I was working as a news reporter in San Diego, I was asked to fill in for the obituary reporter on alternate Saturdays. Much to my surprise, I discovered that everyone who died on a certain day had similar names such as Marjorie, Margaret or Mary. Sounds crazy but it's true. Maybe there's a register on the other side with our names in it. :)

  8. Jean,

    If you're right about all that Margorie, Margaret, Mary stuff, I most sincerely wish you a long, healthy, and joy-filled life.


  9. Hi, again. Such a day. Offline all day trying to push through the middle of a new book, got 2200 words, a lot for me, and feeling good, if tired.

    Lil, if it weren't for you and people like you, we'd be falling trees in a forest with no one around. Hard to imagine writing books no one would ever read -- like handing something off into thin air. So glad you're out there.

    Jean, that's distressing. Let's hope the book isn't alphabetical, or if it is, they're past all our names now and have to come back to us. I've long thought that one of the better elements in the design of life is that we have no idea how long we'll get to do it.

    Jeff, that WAS you in the taxi. That attitude is unmistakable.

  10. Hi Tim,

    I believe in three's too.
    Enjoyed your blog.