Editor's Note: Very Careful | Editor's Note | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Editor's Note: Very Careful 

Last Updated: 05/30/2018 2:14 pm
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You're trying to figure out the exact moment when everything started to go wrong. This sounds a bit hyperbolic, even to you, someone whose tendency toward histrionics and melodrama in relation to his own fragile state of mind is the stuff of cocktail party chatter among friends and associates. Not that there are any cocktail parties to go to anymore. (Or, maybe, you don't get invited out anymore. See? Things are going wrong already.) It's as sad as the end of that silly story by John Cheever where the guy swims in all of his neighbors' pools in Westchester and gets confused. Sad, but sad to a point. It's enough to set you off crying, what with the melancholy and the wistful memory of the film they made of it with a young Burt Lancaster. He was in his fifties by then, but Lancaster still looked great—the way only he and Cary Grant and Rock Hudson could in their fifties. And you think now they're all dead and what a waste and what is the world coming to—and you stop yourself, because you're working yourself into a hysterical lather.

It was the morning, which is interesting, because you like mornings generally; morning being such a hopeful time, despite the connection to insipid sunrises, Cat Stevens's "one light Eden saw play," positivist hippy spirituality, and all that, as the term of art goes, "happy horseshit."

But mornings can turn on you. In fact, mornings can dance on a knife edge of instability, and if you're not careful, before your day even gets going it can make a beeline for the drain. Laughter can turn into crying or vice versa or both occur at once for no apparent reason. You think this may be due to the fact that you're under a lot of pressure currently, at work and home and from a number of other points on the psychological compass. But who isn't? Everyone's under pressure. Everyone is navigating the Scylla of this and the Charybdis of that. It's like that Galway Kinnell poem where he writes "You're tired / But everyone's tired." Followed by the enigmatic line: "But no one is tired enough," which you still can't parse. Is that some poetic doubling-down on the Protestant work ethic?

When you look up "laughter and crying simultaneously" online, Wikipedia suggests you may be suffering from something called pseudobulbar affect, which sounds like a joke waiting for a punchline. Pseudo-bulbar. All you can come up with is "Ersatz fatso!" This laughing-and-crying-together thing is also known as emotional incontinence. It usually happens after a brain injury. This frightens you immensely, as you've suffered no brain injuries—that you know of. There are unknown unknowns here, as you've lost time on a few occasions. Blackouts. Ahem. Mother would not approve. Sometimes the simple fact of having all your organs intact—never having woken up in a in a bathtub full of ice in a Passaic motel with a six-inch incision on your abdomen stitched up with fishing line and missing a kidney—well, it feels like a noteworthy achievement.

Wikipedia explains pseudobulbar affect thusly: "Patients may find themselves crying uncontrollably at something that is only moderately sad, being unable to stop themselves for several minutes [Ed: See Burt Lancaster, above]. Episodes may also be mood-incongruent: a patient may laugh uncontrollably when angry or frustrated, for example. Sometimes, the episodes may switch between emotional states, resulting in the patient crying uncontrollably when having sex." Thankfully, you've not yet wept in coitus. You may want to stop having sex altogether.

Trying to pinpoint where it started, like really started, is a tricky business. It's like trying to guess when you started falling in love with someone. You date for a while and then you wake up one day and you realize your body is vibrating ever so gently, like you've got the most delicious flu. Oh! You're in love! In The Sun Also Rises, one of the characters describes going bankrupt this way: "gradually and then suddenly." Just like falling in love, or realizing everything could go wrong, or, frankly, how a kettle boils. (Maybe that line from Hemingway isn't as insightful you thought it was.)

As best you can locate it, the moment happened at the dentist's office a few weeks ago. After 15 years of ignoring your teeth, you were back on track, getting regular cleanings, brushing after meals, flossing twice daily—you had a real tight oral hygiene regimen. You even bought a Waterpik.

Then, it turned out that one of your front teeth was rotten. It needed to come out. You went in to the dentist's office for an extraction. Just another day in an unrelenting winter, except before you go to work, you lie on your back in a chair while a man fiddles with the inside of your head with miniaturized carpentry tools. No problem. Despite your bad experiences with a sadistic orthodontist as a child and your phobias about dentistry, lying still while people fiddle with you, and ceding control to others, this was going to go fine.

Except there was a problem. Your tooth, that mighty incisor, cracked on the way out. The majority of it was still firmly rooted in your head. Your dentist looked nonplussed by this turn of events, but he carried on working that tooth out of your head, yanking on that bit of your face that stubbornly refused to come loose with his pliers. Somewhere fairly early in the rolling wave of panic attacks you surfed for the next 45 minutes while a man you didn't know all that well and whose motives you began to suspect were less than benign tugged on a piece of your head that seemed inclined to stay put—that was when you realized how wrong things could go. Very wrong. Simple things handled by professionals. Things like dentistry.

This feeling stayed with you after you left. Driving the short distance back to your office, you remembered how dangerous cars were, and how cavalier you'd been all these years, speeding down the Thruway and rolling through stop signs. It's amazing you'd only been in one accident. You were suddenly convinced that statistically you were due for a crash. You decided to pull over and walk a few extra blocks to work, looking both ways at each corner. You were going to have to be very careful from now on.

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