Awakening from a dream a few minutes ago, I could remember only the last couple of scenes, beginning with one in which I had backed the car into the garage and put it on a lift, observed the general filth on the vehicle's underside, scraped a little bit of accumulated grunge from the license plate, and then retreated into the house. Whatever had happened before that, it must have been the extent of the day's activities, because in the next scene I was pulling off my shirt and explaning to nobody nearby that "Sometimes I like to undress in my sister's room, when she's not there."

Now the number of times I've undressed in my sister's room in Real Life is right at zero. There was an incident with the younger sister, when I was twenty-one and not yet moved out of the house and she was twelve, in which basically I'd come home from a particularly heinous swing shift, thrown off my clothes, and sat at the dining room table reading the paper and eating a bowl of cereal. Who's going to know? Everyone's asleep.

Shortly thereafter, she wandered into my room to advise me that she was aware of my, um, condition. (At 21, I'd already been sleeping in the altogether for six years.) Being half awake at best, I fumbled for apologies, but she waved me off. "Oh, I don't care," she said. This incident touched off a period in which both of us eventually became utterly indifferent to clothing, which in later years would perplex our respective housemates. Still, I never, ever disrobed in her room, whether she was there or not, and this collision between dream world and reality is what woke me up: "Who is this person who's supposed to be me?"

Somewhere between the sheets and the shower this question loomed larger and larger, until it became the defining question of my existence. A newborn, after all, has little or no concept of "me": we know the child can feel discomfort before it emerges, and once born, the change in atmosphere — no longer warm and wet — is difficult not to notice, but from this point on, everything contributes to finding some sort of definition for oneself.

I acknowledged as much in high school. English teachers of that place and time were convinced that Shakespeare, among others, should be heard, not merely read, and so there were regular readings of the dramas. (Never got around to the comedies for some reason.) "This above all: to thine own self be true," said our reedy-voiced Polonius, "and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." Pondering this matter, I, supposed to be reading Laertes, missed my next cue.

It occurs to me that even now, six decades done and well into a seventh, I really don't have a complete definition of myself. Perhaps that's the way things are supposed to work: final acceptance comes only with one's last breath. Should that be the case, I suppose I should be content with remaining in the discovery phase; there are things to come which are not yet known, at least by me. And if we're basically just the product of all our influences, as Mark Twain suggested in "What Is Man?" over a century ago, I concede that I resist some of the notions intended to influence me, including almost every argument made thus far in the 2016 Presidential campaign; yet resistance itself is a product of influence, as one cannot reject an idea one has not heard.

The old joke says that when you deal with an adversary, first you walk a mile in his shoes. That way, not only are you a mile away, but you also have his shoes. I've dealt with everything from slippers to loafers to sneakers over the years, and I've come to the conclusion that one can walk only so far. (The guy in the advertising who said he'd walk a mile for a Camel? Too obsessed, if you ask me.) Still, it's not feasible for most of us to disconnect from the rest of the world, and I have to wonder just what kind of a world this would be if it were; if you reduce the number of incoming influences, each of those remaining assumes proportionately more importance. I think this is why I instinctively avoid echo chambers: I'm not so solidly persuaded of the rightness of what I believe that I can safely avoid the occasional challenge. I am, however, somewhat set in my ways, and if you're truly intent upon upsetting my applecart, remember Thomas called Didymus, one of the Twelve (John 20:24), a prototype of the Missourian: he had to be shown.

The Vent

  26 March 2016

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