|One Word is Worth Ten Thousand Pictures|
Issue #17 (January 1983)
It is not easy, even in a land where addiction of one kind or another is endemic, and where the published confession has become an art form, to admit that one has, to use the Vulgate, "a monkey on one's back."
I will not waste the reader's time in comparing the relative merits of my "Thing," as we have come to euphemize our particular idiosyncrasies, for down that road lies the even more debilitating despair of snobbery. For there is a tremendous tendency [quoteright]toward elitism among addicts and the concept of hierarchy is based upon the oddity of the craving and the comparative difficulty of assuaging it. Thus the housewife who is merely queer for Blue Chip Stamps cannot aspire to the prestige accorded the Dead Mouse collector, nor can the latter dare to touch the robe of that most afflicted of all, the sun-tanned type who lashes himself to a select cadre of similarly-obsessed peers and claws his way up a snow-covered mountain, very often yodeling during the process.
Even among such an elite there is an even more inner circle, a creme de la creme and the climber who can yodel a Bach Oratorio while yoked to an orangutan is, or rather was, the recognized doyen of this particular discipline.
I say "was," because the individual to whom this "Thing" was peculiar made the error of choosing for the climb an orangutan of rather limited musical tastes, who garroted him at the timberline with the rope they shared. There are less charitable acquaintances (for there is much jealousy among addicts) who insist that the mutual disenchantment between the yoke-fellows stemmed not from the fact that the orangutan was musically deficient, but rather that the primate had perfect musical pitch. However, I must refrain from passing on such gossip since the real purpose of this article is to share with my fellow addicts the recent hope that I have discovered for inducing my own monkey to take a seat elsewhere.
The simian straddling my sagging scapula has been the more difficult to deal with because there is nothing flamboyant or bizarre about my vice and I have been encouraged since undergraduate days to regard my compulsion as a virtue, and I have, in fact, imputed to my addiction the odor of sanctity by referring to myself as an ardent or voracious reader, rather than a word freak or book nut. One is conditioned from childhood to accept the idea that most scientists, scholars and academic giants have been voracious (or ardent) readers, and, therefore, Good Guys.
The fact of the matter is that I am a compulsive reader, or CR, as we are known clinically, and have escaped opprobrium by passing as an ardent (or voracious) reader, and it is this capacity for dissimulation which makes the CR so difficult to cure. For centuries CRs have masqueraded as savants, until Jean-Paul Sartre blew his cover by admitting that his own preoccupation with words was essentially pathological, and confessed further, that as a child of three, he was wont to sit for hours pretending to read, while his parents, thinking him a prodigy, marveled.
My own parents were probably themselves prodigies, since they were not impressed by the fact that I could read when I was three. They seemed to find this talent unusual only as I grew older and should have been expected to put away the things of the child and dedicate myself to a less sedentary and more normal adolescense of stealing hubcaps, breaking classroom windows and chasing girls.
It is true, of course, that I did learn these more traditional arts, but, barring the chasing of girls, none of them could hope to compete for my attention with the reading of a label on a can or the yearning to squint at a distant billboard to see what the small print in the corner said. Even in the matter of chasing girls, the hunt was sometimes delayed by a subway graffito and if this were another magazine, I might share with the reader a somewhat salacious, if exasperating, anecdote from my senior year, when after a particularly successful chase in which I had cornered the quarry, a junior from Swarthmore, I blew the whole schtick by catching a closeup of a mattress tag. It was a most intriguing tag, which read: DO NOT REMOVE UNDER PENALTY OF THE LAW, and whose fine print went into great detail about the contents of the mattress and listed several numbers of patents pending. Long before I had absorbed the information on the tag, my prey had flown, and my belated impulse to overtake her before she reached the elevator was immediately stifled by a notice on the inside of the room door, which delineated all the state laws and bylaws governing the relationship between landlord and lodger -- just the sort of literary fare upon which the compulsive reader dotes.
Just as some forms of addiction produce hallucinations, sniffles, hepatitis or needle marks, the compulsion to read produces its recognizable symptoms, the most repulsive of which is the acquisition of trivia. Only a CR would know, for example, that the average temperature in Des Moines in May is 62.3°, or that Band-Aids are packaged under Code 5624. There are people who have been compulsive readers for years who successfully passed as voracious (or ardent) readers among a circle of pretty sharp friends, until one night, under the influence of a few cocktails, they blurted out such things as the fact that the first three Most Valuable Player Awards in the American League were given to the Philadelphia Athletics. It is often possible to trap an unwary CR by wondering audibly how many Presidents were Sagittarians or who won the Army-Navy game in 1937. Very often he will not only tell you but will want to wager on who played in the Rose Bowl in 1940. He is merely a bore in most social situations, but when he offers to bet in a bar, his life is very often endangered, since the local pub is, paradoxically, a place where owlish omniscience is more common but less welcome.
Having thus painted a depressing picture of the affliction, and having resorted, I confess, to the cheap gimmickry of the "First-the-Bad-News" ritual, I feel constrained to offer the sufferer a ray of hope, and that is the only purpose of this article.
Now, this ray of hope is of extremely low voltage and is as unpredictable as the sudden remissions which baffle the medical profession, and the miracles which always seem to startle the clergy more than the faithful, as in the Case of the Blinding Flash on the Road to Damascus (starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, as my older readers will remember).
I first came upon the item which may be to the CR what the Salk vaccine was to the polio victim last month when I visited the California State Office Building in San Francisco and discovered a veritable paradise for the CR. Every office on every floor teemed with reading matter, and a CR can wallow, drooling, in pamphlets, directives, bulletins, releases, hand-outs, notices, booklets, brochures, folders, house-organs and How-To paperbacks dealing with everything from tatting to egg candling. I was hypnotized for hours and might have been there yet had I not chanced upon a tasty gem of a paragraph which made everything else seem insipid by comparison. While it is true that there is no legend too cryptic, no graffito too prosaic to escape my complete concentration, I must confess that I can still be swept off my feet by what another discipline might refer to as a "gourmet item." I have reproduced it for the reader, for it contains somehow the secret ingredient which may set us all free:
JOB CLASSIFICATION: 413.887
MUST HAVE THREE YEARS RECENT EXPERIENCE IN ALL PHASES OF SHEEPHERDING. MUST BE ABLE TO CARRY A BALE OF HAY AND BE ABLE TO LIVE ALONE FOR LONG PERIODS. WILL HAVE COMPLETE CHARGE OF A BAND OF SHEEP ON OPEN MOUNTAIN AND DESERT RANGES IN VARIOUS CALIFORNIA LOCATIONS. TWO WEEKS PAID VACATION EACH YEAR. TRANSPORTATION TO SITE OF WORK BY ER. MAIL REFERRAL ONLY.
My own first reaction was, as I said, ecstasy at finding such a beautiful bit of grist for my mill; but this was short-lived, since the more I pondered the item, the more prey I fell to a certain feeling of reaching into infinity and getting a handful of last week's Turnip Puree. The feeling and its accompanying revulsion was all-pervading and reminded me of the time the skunk got caught in the air-conditioning system at the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast. Long before I reached the arcane "ER" in the last sentence, it was borne upon me that I had fallen headlong into a group of sentences that served none of the purposes to which a CR is accustomed to put such material. Far from being a choice morsel with which to woo isolation at some future cocktail party, the item contained virtually no information at all. It actually triggered more questions than I was able to handle without warning. Just a matter of seconds before I read it, I would have insisted that, which not being the ultimate authority on sheep herding, I certainly knew enough about the mores of sheep, as well as the rumored idiosyncrasies of their mentor, the sheepherder, to fake it as an expert, if not in a Butte barroom, at least in a Brooklyn pool hall. The harmless-looking paragraph suddenly began to spatter me with questions like a friendly but very wet dog.
For openers, why would a sheepherder require an arbitrary three years of experience? What is there so difficult about keeping a bunch of sheep together, and what is there so complex about the psyche of Ovis aries that it takes three years to plumb its depths? One could become a master grommet-stamper or a journeyman sausage-stuffer in half the time. And why, also, must the experience be recent? Are concepts in sheep herding changing so rapidly that career sheepherders must take yearly refresher seminars? Are sheep themselves becoming more difficult to herd in the Age of Aquarius than they were when the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf was a bestseller? Are sheep getting into I Ching, pot-smoking and long midnight rap sessions while the sheepherder is trying to get a little sleep? The implied changes in the metier, however radical, do not seem to be essentially technological, since the next sentence demands that the aspirants be able to carry a bale of hay, without even the suggestion that the employer would supply a dolly or a wheelbarrow. The reference to "all phases of sheep herding" certainly seems to invest the job with a nebula of complexity usually associated with more sophisticated disciplines. Is sheep herding today so fraught with hazards and so subject to variables that the sheepherder must make instant decisions in the field? Must he be able to judge in the blink of an eye when to herd his charges East rather than West? Uphill rather than downhill? And how could a sheepherder learn to make such tactical decisions except under actual field conditions? And to what degree are the sheep expected to acquiesce in the decisions? Are they even consulted? Has anyone ever asked a sheep whether he would rather be herded clockwise or counterclockwise? As a layman - and a layman, I might point out, who has no desire to apply for the job - I do know that I would rather herd sheep upwind than downwind, especially on rainy days.
I abandoned further conjecture in this area, since my mind ached to grapple with the problems of why the applicant "must be able to carry a bale of hay and be able to live alone for long periods," and why these two conditions were grouped together. I did not find them mutually exclusive or mutually dependent. As far as their being ipso facto conditions, I could accept a sentence which read "must be able to play the oboe and live alone," since all the oboe players I have known had no choice but to live alone.
As I thus became critical of the writing style, something a CR never does, accepting as he does every word as Gospel, I knew I was in trouble. I began to wish that the writer had taken more pains with the description of duties. "Must be Able to carry a bale of hay." Well, carry it where? And more to the point, carry it how long or how often? As long as the employee lived? As long as he lived alone? For eternity, like Sisyphus, or just whenever he felt like totin' dat bale?
It was at this point that a little red light went on and raucous alarm bells sounded, as question after question rolled over in my mind like a school of porpoises. Was the applicant to bring his own bale of hay? And to whom did he present himself thus accoutered? To the employer? To the sheep? The red lights kept going on like a hotel switchboard when an explosion rocks the kitchen. How, for example, would a herd of sheep react to the advent of one of the Master Race bringing a single bale of hay for the whole flock?
I began to suspect at this point that the key to the whole matter rested in some way with this silly bundle of alfalfa, but it kept eluding me and I wondered if some blind spot in my whole attitude toward sheep was impeding my grasping of this key. While I do not suffer from a real antipathy toward sheep as mutton-mine or sweater-source, I must confess to a philological aversion to anything that is the same in the singular as it is in the plural. I think it was this admission of prejudice which released the dam, and I suddenly realized what was bugging me.Sheep, both singular arid plural, grazed. That was the key. I knew, but I had forgotten. They didn't need any high-IQ-type running after them with a bundle of protein. They ate it right from the ground. If God had wanted His sheep to eat it by the bale, He would see to it that it grew in bales. The whole theological concept of the Shepherd as messiah was based upon the fact that sheep graze. It was the sheepherder's duty to guide the sheep to the best grazing areas and, while they munched placidly, he was to guard them from all hazards and keep the wolves from mugging stragglers.
The bale of hay, Alors? Very simple. This was for the sheepherder. He would live alone for long periods, the length of the periods depending upon his appetite for hay. A sheepherder with restraint, a Zen-type with a sense of moderation in all things, could live for months on a single bale of hay, while a chow-hound might well be dragging the whole gang back every week for a refill. Clearly, the employer's logistical problem would be solved if he could find a sheepherder who would graze along with the troops.
My inadvertent use of the word "troops" uncovered another thing that was bothering me, and that was the statement that the aspirant, if successful, would then be put in "complete charge of a band of sheep." Well, we have all, at some time in our lives, been conned by a fast-talking employer into accepting a position that offered, in lieu of a living wage, a title or the promise that we would be "in complete charge," only to discover that some Neanderthal-type with a sleeve full of hashmarks really ran the outfit, or that some chick who was sleeping with the boss was the real power behind the throne.
It was this kind of personal experience which caused me to doubt that the sheepherder would actually be "in complete charge." The odds are about eight-to-five that while the employer was out combing the skid row for a solitary soul with a taste for hay, one of the older sheep with a thirst for power had already taken over the herd, and was even now telling the gang where to graze and how to keep from getting ripped off by wolves, and also, no doubt, to be especially alert for any two-legged freak that came staggering over the horizon schlepping a bale of hay.
It was at this juncture that the loudest alarm bell went off as a word that had been beating at the door of my subconscious like a landlord on rent day. "Band." That was it. "Band of sheep," the item had called it. "Band of sheep," indeed! I had never heard sheep described as traveling in "bands." "Herds," yes; "flocks," certainly, the latter conjuring up scenes of pastoral tranquility; but the expression "band of sheep" has a sinister ring, especially if they are described as living "on open mountain and desert ranges in various California locations." This argued for a large band, but they probably moved in small, mobile, fast-striking platoons, and woe betide the wolf who stumbled upon such a team. Centuries of being the hunter, I know, would ill-prepare a wolf to survive the psychological shock of the ambush, to gather his wits to escape. For the sheep would prevail, I knew. They would have the advantage of surprise and they would know their enemy, his tricks, his weakness. Oh, I could visualize them now, planning their next foray into his own very strongholds, dressed in wolf's clothing.
I was spared being carried away by these fantasies by the sound of another bell of a different pitch and an inner voice asking me how I explained the need for the man and the bale of hay. I remembered also that the wolf was not only not the sheep's only enemy, but was far from even being the sheep's greatest threat. Certainly no pack of wolves had ever opened offices in Denver or Chicago to facilitate and institutionalize the fleecing of the woolly ones. Was it actually possible that sheep, aware at last of who the real culprit was, had mobilized into commando groups, the better to strike their blow for liberty? I mean, like great but why the guy with the hay? Was he a decoy? A bait set out to lure biped tourists into a sheep bushwhack? But why the hay? My enthusiasm died out at the realization that I had come full circle. I would dearly love to have known what had happened to the last sheepherder. The last several sheepherders. Shorn, possibly; and I found that I was torn between an appreciation of this poetic justice and a feeling of sympathy that any of Our Guys should have the tables thus turned.
Why the hay? Why, why, why the hay? Was it further possible that the sheep, needing a hostage or a decoy or a subject for some science fiction plot to build a humanoid sheep from a model, had hit upon this method of luring the most tractable subjects? Did they operate on the theory that any clown who would go pussyfooting around the boondocks carrying a bale of hay could certainly not be too bright, and could therefore be easily manipulated by the wily Top Sheep?
I could see this Top Sheep in my mind's eye, standing impassively under a tree with his adjutant, watching the latest volunteer from the world of Homo sapiens scrabbling up the hill with the required bale of hay. This Top Sheep is a big sheep and he wears a black patch over one eye. The other eye is completely expressionless as he watches the man approach. He seems to be chewing incessantly, but slowly and deliberately, as he turns to his lieutenant, a smaller, but no less formidable animal, and grunts.
"Well, here cones another one, just like a lamb to the slaughter, if you'll forgive the expression."
My mind's eye focused upon a sign nailed to the tree, and as I squinted to read it, the entire peripheral scene dissolved and I was left standing to read a slowly disappearing legend that I was never able to decipher. The tableau vanished completely and I was left with the sensation of stepping into the sunlight after a long winter in darkness. I have read nothing since, and have received two tickets for parking in restricted zones. True, I frequent only bars where the restrooms are indicated by a set of antlers or a top hat, and I leave you with whatever misspellings occur in these paragraphs, for I shall not read it before I send it out, for I am free!
Hallelujah, free at last!