I suppose one of the many drawbacks of trying to be a nice person is that people end up telling you things you don’t really want to know. They get something on their mind, and nobody else will listen, and so they tell you about it.
Just to clarify, please review my first sentence, particularly the part that says “trying to be a nice person.” Please note that I did not (as in did *not*) write “one of the many drawbacks of being a nice person” and so on. I am trying to be a nice person. I never claimed to be one. That is to say, I am not attempting to talk myself up with this rather personal/self-indulgent bit of prose, I am merely relating my experiences.
People tell me things. I don’t know if it’s because of some aspect of my face that sets them at ease, or if it’s the fact that I try to be a nice person; I really have no idea. I do not resent this sort of thing, on the contrary, I feel honored when someone confides in me, and I do my very best to offer advice, or if I have no experience in the sort of situation they are describing, all I can offer is an open ear and empathy.
And sometimes an open ear and empathy is all that people – including me – need. Sometimes advice does no good. Sometimes there are situations in life for which nothing can be done, other than simply to accept these situations for what they are.
My main course of study in college was “journalism.” And other than a few freelance articles here and there, and other than a handful of articles I wrote for the Traveler (the University of Arkansas’ student newspaper) as a student, I have not made any money from the specific course of study I chose.
There are a couple reasons for this. Actually let’s just go ahead and say there are three reasons for this:
1. While I do possess something of a knack for the written word, and while this “knack” was in fact augmented and honed during my time as a student, upon graduation, I found that it would be next to impossible to find a steady job writing for a newspaper that paid significantly more than the job I already had, which was working in a soil science laboratory and doing related field work. My rent and utilities were covered by the wages I earned from this job, and it was a full-time, 40 hours a week, eight am to five pm sort of job. A newspaper job – assuming I could get one – would have entailed more than 40 hours a week, it would not have been an eight to five job, and in all likelihood the pay would not have been any more (and possibly even less) than the job I had in the soil science lab.
You could say I should have chosen a more practical thing to major in; I would reply that you would be correct, were you to say that, but that at the time I chose my major, “creative writing” was what I really wanted to major in, but that I chose “journalism” as a matter of practicality.
So yeah, “oh, the irony” and so on and so forth.
2. You will note that I made it a point to add “assuming I could get one” in the above reason/excuse for why I haven’t made very much money from journalism in the 13 years since I graduated from the U of A. There is a reason I added that disclaimer: many – if not most – newspaper and magazine jobs require an internship process. That is to say, they require new employees to work without pay – sometimes for upwards of six months or more – before they will actually give these employees any sort of salary. This was at least the case around the time I graduated from the U of A. I wasn’t fully aware of that aspect of the field when I decided to major in it. I was merely following what seemed to be my natural talent, hoping that if I did what people were continually telling me I was good at, somehow everything would work out.
Perhaps if I had been a little more patient, I could have managed to work full-time at an hourly job and intern for free at a newspaper or magazine in the hopes that said newspaper or magazine would later put me on full-time. I suppose I have no one to blame but myself for doing what seemed at the time to be the practical thing and taking a full-time job in a mostly unrelated field.
3. While I do apparently have the sort of face or “demeanor” or “personality” or whatever you want to call it that generally puts other people at ease – the type of (whatever) that makes people “open up” and tell me things they wouldn’t dream of telling most people – and while this sort of (whatever) is something akin to the “wet dream” of many exploitative journalists who expose people’s vulnerabilities and secrets and what have you for profit, I am burdened in this regard by an all-but-forgotten remnant of what used to be called “being a decent person”: my conscience.
If someone tells me their deepest and darkest secret, I do not run off and tell everyone. I do not have the pretentiousness to congratulate myself for being able to trick someone into confiding in me so that I may profit from their having done so. As a matter of fact I do not “trick” anyone into confiding in me, they generally do so entirely of their own volition.
Perhaps I should have studied psychology instead.
I will now relate an example of someone confiding in me. I don’t feel that relating this example will do anyone any harm, since for one I will not relate the specific identity of this person, and for two this person has been dead for a little over five years at this point.
As a matter of fact, my relating this to you – whoever you are – is me confiding in you, whoever you might be.
Consider that a warning. You are free to stop reading right now, if you don’t want to be bothered or burdened with it.
But on with the show:
The person in question – the deceased – was notoriously quiet. This fact was expounded upon in his eulogy, as a matter of fact. He quite simply did not talk very much, at least not to most people. I worked with the fellow for a little under three years, off and on.
When I first met him, I had recently taken a job working for my stepfather. He and a small crew were building a decent-sized house, and I had just recently returned to the USA from a two-year stint as an ESL teacher in Gimpo, South Korea. This was the “full-time job in an unrelated field” I mentioned before. This was in summer of 2008. I didn’t have a job lined up when I got back – as a matter of fact I had planned on returning to South Korea, but for various reasons, well, I didn’t.
This notoriously quiet fellow had just gotten out of prison. I am not 100% sure exactly what the nature of his crime was, but he told me later that the charge was “simple battery” and possession of a small amount of “ice,” which I have read (or maybe heard on “Breaking Bad”) is slang for low-grade methamphetamine.
Despite his somewhat “rough” looking exterior, he and I always got along at work. He was an excellent carpenter, and as working people around my part of the country say, “he didn’t mind working.” He was a very hard worker, and he did in fact come in late a few times because he had stayed up too late the previous evening drinking or doing whatever he did late at night, but once he was at work he worked, and if he was ever hung over he didn’t let on that he was.
He had a tattoo on one shoulder with a skull that had the letters “F T W” under it, and another tattoo across the fingers of I think his right hand that said “O Z Z Y,” I suppose in sort of an homage to the “L O V E” and “H A T E” tattoos Ozzy Osbourne has (or maybe had) across his fingers.
This fellow was a pretty big Ozzy fan, and a fan of metal-type music in general. Once, while still on probation from his short stint in a Louisiana prison, he took a pretty serious risk – one I am pretty sure he knew he was taking – by crossing state lines into Texas to go see OzzFest with a group of his friends. He didn’t get caught, at any rate, and were he still alive, even though I have not and will not mention his name anywhere in this blog post, I wouldn’t even think about putting a potentially incriminating bit of information like that down for whoever to read.
It was quite stupid of him to do that, nonetheless he did it anyway.
After the house was built, he helped my stepfather and I on a great many carpentry jobs. And though he and I were quite a bit different, well, at least at work, we became friends. We got along and joked around with each other and that sort of thing, and he and I worked alone together for more hours than I can really count. I might have been able to give you a rough estimate some time around 2011, when he committed suicide, but the intervening five years have blurred the various jobs he and I worked together on, and all I can say for sure is that he and I worked together quite a lot, and despite our differences, and despite his continually getting in minor trouble with the law, all in all he was quite possibly the best – or at least my favorite – coworker I have ever had.
Excluding family members, of course. 🙂
He was quiet, is what his step-uncle said as he gave his eulogy. The Garth Brooks song “The Dance” played at his funeral, and I don’t know if I should be writing this or not but I remember Garth Brooks once said that some teenager who committed suicide (I think) said in his suicide note that he wanted “The Dance” to be played at his funeral, but according to Garth Brooks, if that teenager had understood the meaning of “The Dance” at all, he wouldn’t have committed suicide, or something like that, because the chorus of “The Dance” goes as follows:
I’m glad I didn’t know
the way it all would end
the way it all would go”
and if that weren’t enough, I assume Mr. Brooks reasoned, the chorus of the song continues thusly:
are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
but I’d have had to miss
which I realize that many people who might read this blog have zero appreciation for country music, and the people who do appreciate country music may or may not like Garth Brooks (“The Dance” is one of my all-time favorite songs of any genre, FYI, but a lot of Garth’s stuff I don’t care for), nonetheless the basic “message” or whatever of the song is that things don’t always go the way you want them to, and as a matter of fact sometimes they turn out rotten, but to avoid situations where great things could happen simply because you are afraid something terrible will happen, well, you shouldn’t do that. Or something.
Hanging oneself with a belt sometime after midnight on a Sunday/Monday is not a good example of living out the message espoused by “The Dance,” at any rate.
The first job he and I worked on – the decent-sized house – has a pretty tall roof with a pretty steep slope, I think it was “nine and twelve” in carpentry-speak, which puts the angle of the roof in relation to the floor of the house somewhere around 45 degrees.
The house is built into the side of a hill, and even though most of the house itself – four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining room, and a living room with a vaulted ceiling probably around 20 feet high in the center – is on a single, top-of-the-hill level floor, there’s also a spacious garage and basement underneath the main floor of the house. The attic area of this house, square foot-wise – is almost as large as the main living area, and it could have easily been made into a second story, or a third story if you count the garage and basement, which you might as well.
But the owners of the house didn’t want a an “upstairs” area in their house, they just wanted a tall roof, which many people nowadays seem to want, or at least seemed to want eight years ago, when the house was being built. So that’s what we built for them.
Our basic plan of attack for this house was to dig a trench – about eight or ten feet deep – at the top of the slope, just in front of where the front of the finished house would be. We tied rebar and wire into big squares, then lowered them into the trench. When we were done tying wire and rebar together, we filled the trench with concrete.
In case the purpose of this is not immediately apparent, we did this to create a retaining wall, one that would prevent the soil and eventually the foundation of the house from eroding away during rainstorms.
After the retaining wall had been given time to set up and harden, we hired someone to dig out the hill on the lower side of the retaining wall and to flatten out the area where the house would sit. After that, we laid out the foundation of the house with a transit, batter boards, and string.
Then a bricklayer came and essentially built the bottom half of the house with cinderblocks. Normally, on a house with conventional flooring – flooring made of wood, as opposed to a concrete slab, which is more common nowadays – built on more or less level ground, the cinderblock foundation would only be a few courses of blocks high, enough to lift the wooden floor off of the ground and provide a few feet of crawlspace under the floor. But in the case of this house, which you will remember is built into the side of a hill, the cinderblock foundation is somewhere around twelve or thirteen courses high. This serves to bring the back side of the house up to the same level as the front side of the house.
To help you envision this house, as in the finished product, when you approach the house on foot from the front side, when you walk onto the front porch – a foot or two above ground level – then enter through the front door, the main floor of the house is more or less at the same level as the front porch. If you walk straight through the house – through the foyer and the living room with vaulted ceilings, then step into the kitchen on your right and then go out one of the back doors onto the back porch – the other back door opens from the master bedroom – you will find that you are now approximately eight feet or so above ground level. When you are on the back porch, I mean.
The reader will have to pardon my digression there, if she or he found it unnecessary. The reason I added it was to help illustrate that there is quite a bit of distance – something like 30 feet, I think – from the tip of the roof to the ground on each gable end of the house.
To back up just a bit, after the bricklayer – who incidentally did quite well for himself on this job: he returned after we were mostly done and laid bricks (like reddish clay exterior bricks) around a lot of the house also; as a sidenote this fellow is quite likable and friendly, and he is a big NASCAR fan and often talked about going to various races here and there…I won’t mention his name here, but if you live in the El Dorado area and need any brick work done, I can give you contact information; he’s not the cheapest bricklayer in this area but he does damn good work – built the foundation/lower half of the house, we built the floor. After we built the floor, we put up most of the stud walls – they were taller than normal 8-foot stud walls, I want to say they were 10 foot but I don’t remember for sure – and after that we began setting the special-ordered pre-fab roof trusses on top of the stud walls.
The house is about fifty feet wide, so in order to give them the pitch and height that the homeowners desired, the trusses had to be quite tall, somewhere around 16-18 feet tall, if memory serves. As these special-ordered, pre-fab trusses were to be delivered on a flatbed truck trailer – like a quote-unquote “18-wheeler” type trailer – they had to be laid on their side in a stack. And since it would be impossible to fit a 16 or so foot item on a truck bed that was roughly half that amount of feet in width (without having several feet hanging off on each side, which would make driving down the highway impossible) the trusses were split roughly in half: there were trapezoidal pieces that were designed to sit atop the stud walls, and triangular pieces that were designed to sit atop the trapezoidal pieces.
So, what we had to do was to put the bottom, trapezoidal truss pieces on first, then come back later and attach the triangular pieces to the top of the trapezoidal pieces.
Being that these truss pieces were over fifty feet in length, roughly 8 feet tall, and constructed out of lumber and metal nail plates – and therefore quite cumbersome – this part of the building process was done with a crane. My role in the process was to attach each truss piece to the end of the line attached to the crane. The crane operator then (very carefully) maneuvered the truss piece over the house, as closely as possible to where it was supposed to sit on top of the stud walls.
Two carpenters waited on the truss piece to be set down on top of the walls, and using their hammers bumped the truss piece into the pre-measured pencil marks where it was supposed to go. When the truss was in place, they drove a couple nails through the truss pieces into the top of the stud walls.
This was only part of the process, however. The trusses also had to be secured at their tops, otherwise they’d simply fall over, pulling the nails out at the bottom.
This part of the process was performed by a third carpenter, in this instance the fellow I am more or less writing this blog post about, the one who has now been dead for a little over five years.
This fellow climbed up a ladder and nailed pre-measured and pre-cut pieces of 2 x 4 lumber across the tops of these trapezoidal truss pieces. I think he used two pieces of 2 x 4 to connect each consecutive truss piece to the next.
From his position atop the ladder – which was leaned up against the outside gable truss piece, which was secured by a temporary brace to the outside wall of the house – he could only reach the first and maybe second truss piece. So, instead of taking the time to climb down the ladder (which was an extension ladder), retract the ladder, carry it to the next spot, extend the ladder, position it against the most recently placed truss piece, then climb back up the ladder and secure the next one or maybe two truss pieces, and then repeating this process over and over, do you want to know what he did?
He climbed up on the truss pieces he had already secured, on his hands and knees, and waited for the crane to place the next truss. When it was placed, he nailed a couple of pieces of 2 x 4 to it, securing it to the previous secured truss, then he crawled onto it and waited for the next truss to be placed.
He did this without the slightest bit of hesitation or fear. The trusses – big, floppy things that they were – wobbled a little under his weight, even though they were secured by nails at the top and bottom.
There’s probably some sort of moral or something to be derived here: the trusses on this house – and the trusses on your house, if you live in a house – did not have much strength in and of themselves. When the 8′ by 4′ sheets of plywood were laid across them and stapled down, however, they became quite strong. This sort of thing is apparent in many aspects of carpentry, from stud walls to floor joists to garage shelves: each individual piece is not particularly strong by itself, but when put together in the right way, the pieces form something that is quite sturdy. But I digress.
From where I stood – remember that the house in question is built into the side of a hill – the fellow crawling on top of the truss pieces appeared as if he were quite a ways up in the air. The spot where I attached – or helped attach, I honestly can’t remember – each truss to the crane line was at least a few feet above the floor level of the house, and the hill tapered on off another 15 feet or so (from where I stood) down to the far side of the house.
The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces was, in fact, somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 or so feet above the floor of the house itself. But remember that the floor of the house was itself off of the actual ground about 8 or 10 feet, because of the house having been built into the side of a hill, and there being a garage and basement under the floor.
So, to me, the fellow appeared to be quite a bit higher off of “the ground” than he actually was. To be sure, falling 16 or so feet and hitting a solid plywood floor – one littered with lumber, power tools, and various hazards, not to mention interior walls one might ricochet off of on the way down – would be no picnic. At any rate, I think I was more worried about the fellow falling off the truss pieces than he was. My own blood pressure was soaring during this part of the construction process, even though I wasn’t in any danger myself.
The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces didn’t seem to mind doing it at all. Or if he did, he certainly didn’t say much of anything about it.
I do know one thing: even after several subsequent years of carpentry work, and finally more or less getting over my fear of working on rooftops (I found that my blood pressure could actually reach much higher levels than I had imagined while helping “deck” the roof of this house with plywood, after all the trusses were placed), there is no dollar amount anyone could pay me that would embolden me enough to go crawling on hands and knees (with a hammer in one hand and a couple pieces of 2 x 4 in the other) across wobbly truss pieces like that fellow did. If someone threatened to shoot me if I refused to do so, I likely would ask them to please not aim at my head or at any vital organs.
This fellow impressed me many other times, not only with his climbing abilities and fearlessness on rooftops and whatnot, but also with his skill as a carpenter. Many other times, many more than I care to list here.
It sounds incredibly stuck up for me to say, but if we hadn’t worked together, he and I would not likely have been friends. And I don’t know if he ever considered me to be his “friend,” but I considered him to be my friend, at least my “friend at work,” which if you’ve ever had a job you know what I mean.
After doing quite a few smaller jobs with him – building porches, remodeling rooms, putting metal roofs on (I was always the fellow who handed the pieces up to the people on the roof, ha ha) and various things – we began work on another, smaller house. This house has a concrete slab for a foundation, and we had to do quite a bit of “dirt work” before we got to where we could build concrete forms (this fellow knew a lot about building concrete forms, and I was more or less his “helper” for a week or so; actually I was more or less his “helper” a lot of the time we worked together and I learned a lot by working with him), and anyways at some point during this process we had a few days off where someone else had to come in – maybe it was the plumber laying pipes under what would become the concrete floor of the house, maybe it was the crew that poured the slab, I don’t remember – and work on the job site, and we (the carpenters) were not needed there.
During that time, we did a really small job on a trailer house, repairing a couple sections of floor that had rotted out.
And remember, when I say “we” at this point, I am talking about me, the fellow I have been talking about, and my stepfather. My stepfather had left me and the one fellow at the trailer house either to go get building materials or to discuss something with either the owner of the trailer or the owner of the house we were just getting started on or somebody. At any rate, I and the one fellow were there at the trailer house where the floor was rotting out in places, and nobody else was there.
I found a few pot seeds in the ratty shag carpet of this trailer house, if memory serves. But I digress.
The fellow – who was known to most people as “quiet,” including his family – told me something that day. I don’t know if “confided” would actually be the proper word, because he didn’t really get specific about what he meant by what he said, and I actually totally misinterpreted what he said when he said it to me.
He mentioned that everybody always seemed to “bitch” at him, no matter what he did. His mom and stepdad bitched at him – he lived in a camper trailer behind his mom’s house for most of the time I knew him – his girlfriend (and mother of two of his four kids) bitched at him, everybody bitched at him, no matter what he did. If he drank too much and got in trouble with the law – something that happened a few times while we worked together – he got bitched at. If he tried to act right and be a good guy, he got bitched at. No matter what he did, it seemed, it always ended up with somebody bitching at him.
“I can’t take this shit no more,” is what he said to me, as we were deciding how to fix the rotten spot in the floor of the trailer house with pot seeds in the ratty shag carpeting.
Since his girlfriend had been the last complaint he mentioned, I took “I can’t take this shit no more” to mean that he was going to break up with her. They had a lot of trouble during their time together, and I assumed he was planning on splitting up with her.
They had begun seeing each other during the construction of the other house I wrote about, the one where he fearlessly crawled across the tops of truss pieces. I think he met her at the gas station she worked at. While we were building the bigger house, she would bring him lunch, and I think they would mess around a little in the back of her car – or maybe it was his car, maybe she was driving his car, I don’t remember for sure – during the lunch hour.
At any rate, he had been telling me and my stepdad that he and his girlfriend hadn’t been getting along very well – he talked to both of us quite a bit, despite his reputation of being “quiet” – and anyways like I said when he told me “I can’t take this shit no more” I thought he meant that he was done with his girlfriend, who he had been seeing for almost three years at that point.
In retrospect, I don’t think that’s what he meant at all.
At the time of his death, he had no driver’s license, and he was unable to get registration stickers for the license plate on his car. Again, I am not a “snitch” of any sort, and if the perpetrator of this minor crime weren’t dead I wouldn’t think of mentioning it, but he forged registration stickers – which were yellow at the time; in Arkansas (and probably elsewhere) these stickers change color every year to allow the police to easily tell if any given driver’s registration is up to date – using the label he peeled off of a can of vegetables – the label was yellow, like that year’s registration stickers – and a pen.
My stepfather and I would pick him up every morning from his sister’s house. Her house was quite a bit closer to the main highway than his mom’s house, and he would drive on backroads to his sister’s house every work morning and we would pick him up and go on to the job site. This was done to save time, mainly; as I said his sister lived closer to the highway than his mom (and he) did.
Going down this highway toward the job site every morning, my stepfather and I would pass a road on the right that leads to where this fellow lived. On down the highway a bit – a mile or two – there is another road on the right that leads to where this fellow’s sister lives. These two roads are connected a few miles away from the highway, and the fellow would drive from his mom’s house – which is about 10-15 minutes down the first road on the right, from the highway – to his sister’s house, which is about 2-3 minutes down the second road on the right, from the highway.
One Monday morning, as my stepfather and I were approaching the first road on the right, we saw an ambulance coming from the opposite direction, lights flashing, turn down the first road. I don’t remember if we said anything to each other, but something told me…well, something.
We went on down the highway to the second road. We went to the fellow’s sister’s house, turned around, and parked beside the road – like we had been doing every work day for at least a few weeks – and the fellow was not there. We assumed he was running late – he ran late sometimes, as I think I mentioned early on – and we sat there and waited for him for a few minutes.
We finally decided that he had overslept, and that we would have to go pick him up from his mom’s house, something that had happened once or twice before.
When we got there, the ambulance that we had seen a few minutes earlier was parked in the driveway. And the fellow’s stepfather – incidentally one of the other carpenters who helped build the larger house mentioned before, someone I also learned a few carpentry things from – was outside. He told us that the fellow had hanged himself.
Construction of the new house was delayed for a couple weeks, not only to accommodate initial shock and going to his funeral and whatnot, but also to accommodate getting a new crew together: the other fellow who was helping on this new house (he also helped on the bigger house) was friends away from work with the fellow who killed himself, and he found that he simply couldn’t work with us at the time, because of grief and that sort of thing. We reminded him of his friend, I mean.
You may be wondering what in the hell the title of this post is in reference to. I will tell you:
“FISH CANNOT CARRY GUNS!” is the motto of the “Rhipodon Society,” a group of three people (four if you count Horselover Fat, which no sane person would) in the Philip K. Dick novel “VALIS.” A rhipodon is some sort of fish – maybe some sort of prehistoric fish, I forget – and the narrator of “VALIS,” “Phil,” has a dream where he is one of these fish, and he tries to hold a machine gun in the dream with his fish fins but cannot do so.
Fish are significant in the novel because the fish icon used by early Christians (the same one used today by many Evangelical Christians, you probably know the icon as a “Jesus fish”) resembles a section of the “double helix” of a strand of DNA.
The “nose” of the fish is where the double helix twists, and the “tail” is visible if you cut the double helix in half roughly halfway to the next twist in the double helix.
It’s one of those things you can’t unsee once you’ve seen it, even if you’ve only seen it in your head, such as I did yesterday and today, when I read “VALIS” for the third time. I have “VALIS” on my phone; I bought it and the other two novels in the “VALIS Trilogy” – “The Divine Invasion,” which you practically need a Religious Studies degree to make heads or tails of (I don’t have one, and it made no sense to me whatsoever), and “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” which was actually the first PKD novel I ever read years ago, despite it being the last one he published (it wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the “VALIS Trilogy,” FYI, and doesn’t fit especially well there) – as a set for $9.99 at the Kindle Store a few years back. I have read “VALIS” twice on my phone and once (the first reading) in paperback.
Many PKD enthusiasts – a subsection of society I consider myself to be a member of – consider VALIS to be PKD’s “masterpiece.” And while I do think the novel has, well, “merit,” I don’t consider it to even be one of his better novels. Other than “The Divine Invasion,” it’s probably my least favorite of any of them…even though it’s the only one other than “A Scanner Darkly” (his best effort, in my opinion) I have read all the way through more than twice.
So why do I feel compelled to reread “VALIS,” even though I don’t think very highly of it? Well, above and beyond searching for whatever intangible thing that makes many of my fellow PKD fanatics like it so much, a central plot element in “VALIS” resonates with me personally.
“VALIS” is narrated by “Phil,” a slightly fictionalized version of its author. Other PKD novels (including “A Scanner Darkly”) are mentioned in “VALIS,” as a matter of fact. The trouble is, it is impossible to tell how much of the narrator is based in reality and how much of him is fictionalized.
Phil has an alter-ego in “VALIS” named Horselover Fat. “Philip” is apparently Greek for “Horselover,” and “Dick” is apparently German for “Fat.” Ergo, “Philip Dick” = “Horselover Fat.”
Horselover Fat, for the biggest part of the novel, is presented as a separate character from Phil, even though Phil mentions early on that he and Horselover Fat are in fact the same person. He talks to Fat and Fat talks to him, and Phil’s friends also seem to interact with Fat as if he were a completely separate person from Phil.
And no, I do not have an imaginary friend whose name is derived from translations of “Michael Walker,” just in case you were wondering…although I do conduct mock interviews with myself on my Facebook author page, no disrespect to any mentally ill person who actually talks to himself or herself intended.
Nonetheless, the event that apparently split Phil Dick’s mind roughly in half does resonate with me somewhat.
As I mentioned, one of the things that I seriously dislike about “VALIS” is that it is impossible to tell how much of “Phil” is based on the real-life Philip Kindred Dick and how much is made up. In an abstract sort of sense, like as in a “how much of any person is really real, people only present a fraction of themselves to other people, and that fraction may not even actually represent the person’s actual self at all” sort of sense, I suppose the novel is quite compelling. But being as how I, a reader who strongly identifies with what might be a completely and totally fabricated major plot element, well, to say the least, in this sense the novel is quite annoying.
“Phil” has a female friend in the novel named Gloria. Actually, I suppose she is Horselover Fat’s friend.
At the risk of copyright infringement, I will type out the first paragraph of the first chapter of “VALIS,” capitalized words appear as they do in the edition I have on my Kindle app:
“HORSELOVER FAT’S NERVOUS breakdown began the day he got the phone call from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself. She was calling everyone she knew. By now she had fifty of them, but she needed thirty or forty more to be on the safe side.”
I have no idea whether “Gloria” was based on an actual person, or if the character is totally made up. What I do know is that in the novel “VALIS,” Horselover Fat becomes something of a scholar regarding ancient religious texts, that Horselover Fat writes page after page of something he calls the “exegesis,” and that Horselover Fat is addicted to “uppers,” i.e. amphetamines.
I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick was, for much of his career, addicted to “uppers,” and that he spent many hours writing something called the “exegesis” which was published about 20 years after his death in the early 1980s.
The “exegesis” contains Dick’s interpretation of Gnostic Christian texts, intertwined with all sorts of stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of literal sense. This “exegesis” is something Dick actually wrote, and it is quoted partially in “VALIS” from time to time.
The entirety of what is quoted in the novel itself (plus quite a bit more) makes up an Appendix at the end of “VALIS.” This appendix is labeled “Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura.” This title is also mentioned in the novel, I think it means “Hidden Scriptures,” and I think it’s part of the “exegesis,” or maybe a short version of the “exegesis,” or something. I finished the novel itself this morning and read about half of the 52 entries in the “Cryptica Scriptura,” and they make less and less sense (and get longer and longer, and some entries aren’t in English and have no translations), and anyways I quit reading the damned thing.
It correlates ancient religious scriptures and figures and such things with events that happened in Phil/Fat’s life. The main idea of the “exegesis” is that God – or “the universe,” or something grand and all-encompassing, at least – was split in two a long time ago, that there’s a good half and a bad half, that the bad half thinks it’s the good half (or something) and the bad half is ruled by a blind “creator deity” who thinks he’s the only god, but there’s actually a bigger god above him that’s good, and this bigger, better god is trying to help the creation (the world) of the smaller blind god, but the smaller blind god fights it off, and the bigger, better god is made entirely out of information, and the early Christians got in touch with this bigger, better god through Jesus, and they knew that everything was essentially information, which is why they designed the “Jesus fish” to look like a section from a DNA strand.
It seems like, at the beginning of “VALIS,” that “Fat” is the one who came up with all this, well, nonsensical stuff, and that “Phil” doesn’t really buy any of it. “Fat” apparently seems to be the speed-taking, staying-up-for-days-at-a-time-typing-maniacally half of the narrator, and “Phil” is the more rational side of the narrator, who doesn’t quite believe any of that stuff.
As the novel goes on, the lines between these two blur quite a bit. As does the line between “Phil” the narrator of “VALIS” and “Philip K. Dick,” the author of “VALIS.”
For example, one major plot element in “VALIS” is that Phil/Fat gets “zapped” by a pink laser beam that comes pretty much out of nowhere and enables him to speak koine (common) Greek for a short time. This pink laser also tells Phil/Fat that his son Christopher is suffering from some sort of hernia that his doctor overlooked, and that if the hernia isn’t treated soon, Christopher will die. So Phil/Fat (I am not sure which one, or if it makes any difference) takes young Christopher (who has been complaining about pain) to the doctor, tells the doctor about the possible hernia, and the doctor examines Christopher and finds that he does indeed have such a hernia, and that it is indeed life threatening.
For a sci-fi novel with heavy religious overtones, that makes for an interesting plot device. The thing is, PKD spoke of this “pink laser” incident as if it were something that actually happened to him. As in him, the author, in real life.
I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick died after having several strokes in a row, that long-term amphetamine abuse can put one at risk for stroke, and that major strokes are often accompanied by hallucinations.
I don’t know how seriously Dick – the real-life author – took any of this stuff. I am sure that (assuming he didn’t just make it all up) the “pink laser” incident was very real to him; nonetheless I have a very hard time even beginning to give any credence whatsoever to the idea that this “pink laser” existed anywhere outside his own addled brain.
So, getting back to the point, I don’t know if Gloria was real or not. And in addition to my being somewhat “annoyed” that one of my all-time favorite authors more or less documented his own descent into insanity in novel form, and that he may or may not have been insane enough at the end of his life to take these insane things he wrote about three-eyed people and “living information” and whatnot seriously, I am also very annoyed that I have no way of knowing whether “Gloria” – who you will remember is credited with Phil/Fat’s nervous breakdown – is merely a fictional character in “VALIS” or based off of someone Philip K. Dick knew in real life.
Gloria ends up committing suicide in “VALIS,” you see. Phil/Fat tries to talk her out of it, but she does it anyway, not by taking a hundred sleeping pills (Nembutals) but by jumping out of a tenth-floor window at – of all places – a drug rehab facility.
It annoys me to no end, not knowing if “Gloria” was based on a real person. Especially since the “Cryptica Scriptura” or whatever you call it repeatedly makes reference to some mythical woman who died long ago, and the quest to bring her back to life.
Gloria’s death is essentially the central theme of “VALIS.” Fat searches ancient religious texts and spends hours madly typing or scribbling notes in his “exegesis” in search of the new “savior,” not in order that he may be saved, but so Gloria can be brought back to life.
The whole book is insane. It presents itself as (at least partially) nonfiction, but which parts are nonfiction (other than references to real-life PKD novels) and which parts are fiction?
Is “Gloria” merely a plot device?
I first read “VALIS” (in paperback; I gave my copy to a friend) in 2008. The whole thing about a female friend committing suicide and giving Phil/Fat a nervous breakdown resonated quite strongly with me at the time.
I mentioned this event obliquely in another blog post, and I am not going to go into any detail here, other than to say that grief related to her quite untimely death is the principal reason I have yet to return to South Korea.
Suffice it to say that my co-worker was not the first person I had been rather close to who committed suicide.
As a matter of fact, I wrote something that could be called a “book” following this first suicide and shared it with a handful of friends. I have it saved on an old external hard drive, and out of curiosity I did a word count on it after I began writing this post.
The word count of this “book” is 82,792. I didn’t realize how long it was. It’s actually longer than my novel, which ended up being about 79,000 words.
The first “book” was written mainly as a sort of therapy; it was never edited, or for that matter even collated into a single document. It did me a lot of good to write it, and I am grateful to the people who read it.
It has not been – and will not be – published. Sorry.
Like I said, though, it was quite therapeutic. I finished it in early 2011, five or six months before my coworker hanged himself. So I guess it’s good I wrote it when I did, otherwise I might have gone full-blown Horselover Fat and started writing exegeses and Cryptica Scripturas and whatnot.
I don’t do any “uppers” stronger than coffee and energy drinks, though. Something else to consider, re PKD, is that long-term amphetamine abuse – regardless as to whether it gives one strokes or heart trouble – often leads to psychosis.
So, yeah, remember that, kids: don’t do drugs.
What led to this rather unpleasant little stroll down memory lane? I will tell you:
I got to searching for a collection of home-recorded “songs” I made in 2010 on my computer, and I couldn’t find them. I thought that I had copies of them on my current computer (which I bought in 2015), but apparently I was mistaken.
After spending an hour or two digging through CDs, looking for a copy of this collection, I looked on an old external hard drive, where I (luckily) found all the “songs” I was looking for.
While I was exploring the external hard drive, I also happened to look at a few pictures I took in 2008 of the bigger house I mentioned.
And so on.
Thank you for reading, if anyone read all of this. I will try to avoid this sort of unpleasant subject matter in the future.