From the Kurt Vonnegut Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
So I spent the past two months wondering, “What if I do have leukemia, or non-Hodgkins lymphoma—or bone cancer?” Tests, tests, tests. These finals were threatening to be the final, if you know what I mean.
And yet, thoroughly phlebotomized, I was finally given the All Clear. I was fine—no cancer. Just some odd, persistent lab numbers that reset themselves in a kind of metabolic reboot.
Strangely, I wasn’t worried worried. Whatever the deal was, was OK by me. I was more concerned about my wife, who has lost a lot of family over the past year (both parents and an older brother). I needed to know she would be OK, so finances were on my mind. But dying…eh.
And not because I was confident my ticket for that bullet train to heaven was still valid. Frankly, if given a choice, I’d lay my head on a hospital pillow for one last time and descend into a corking long sleep.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that eternal life was about as appealing to me as yet another episode of Are You Being Served? Who wants to live forever? I realize you can’t speak of tedium when you’re no longer in time’s thrall, but good gravy and a bag of rocks that’s tedious. I’m sorry, but I can only believe that eternal life will prove as disappointing as mortal life, as disappointing as Season Two of The Wire. And that’s pretty damn disappointing.
Even the idea of being reunited with loved ones is kind of weird. Say I met up with my parents, whom I miss very much. Would they be my parents anymore? And by that I don’t mean would our familial relationships be irreparably altered in the New Jerusalem or the Unprecedented Baltimore or wherever it is we’re transported. I mean, what would perfected editions of my parents be? Certainly not my parents. More like the Director’s Cut. My parents had flaws, blind spots, quirks, like everybody else. Two “glorified” people would be strangers to me. If I were to meet up with them again, I’d want them just as they were, not ablaze with blessedness, ready for their close-up of the beatific vision.
And what about me? Vaporize my neuroses and I have no personality at all. “Heaven” was beginning to look a lot like a convention of casino greeters and restaurant mâitre d’s, all perpetual smiles and best behaviors. I’m from New York. What some people judge to be rude or wacky, I consider texture.
I guess apologists would say we can’t evaluate our perception of “Paradise” by means of our current stunted, fallen faculties. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard…” Thomas Aquinas argued that the saved will be able to see the damned in hell so they can enjoy the beatitude and grace of God more abundantly. Now that’s something you don’t get to see every day. Unless you live in Baltimore.
In other words, the more I drilled down into what I believed about the “afterlife” when I had reason to believe I was much closer to the “after” than to the life, the more I became convinced it was all so much applesauce. It was as if a second language I had been speaking for thirty years had suddenly become a cacophony of nonsense vocables. It didn’t parse. It didn’t convey meaning. It was just gibberish.
But the prospect of a great eternal nothingness—now that was something I could lean into.
Contemplating one’s mortality typically has the opposite effect on people. But I’ve never been typical people.
Sleep. Sleep is nice.
I started this blog on Election Day, 2008, when I was working at Time magazine. I departed First Things as managing editor to take the job at Time as a mere copy editor for several reasons: a significant bump in pay (believe it or not); four-day workweeks most weeks (there was compulsory overtime once a month); the prospect of promotion to copy chief; and an opportunity to blog for Time.com—which never materialized. Why that was, I’m not altogether certain, as the person who would have been responsible for opening that door simply stopped communicating with me—no explanation.
Strange Herring became a compensation strategy, an alternate outlet.
I shut the blog down after little less than a year, when I took the gig as online editor/copy chief for Commentary. I wanted to focus my energies there, as there was a lot going on. Also, I was given space on the Contentions blog to write this, that, and the other thing—as well as time on weekends to do a mini–SH.
When I left Commentary, I revived the blog in earnest—sometimes posting up to twelve times a day. There were hiatuses, to be sure, but I would inevitably cough up a post or two just to clear my lungs.
Traffic has never amounted to much, although I enjoyed notable spikes, such as when RealClearReligion saw fit to link to, I believe, three posts in seven years. And of course whenever Mollie Hemingway—without whom most of you would probably never have heard of me—used her ever-growing social-media presence to promote my bluster.
This is a tortuous—i.e., Sacramonian—way of saying that the time has come to put Strange Herring to a corking long sleep.
First of all, blogging has become very 2002. There are only a handful of bloggers left who can either (a) make a living at it, or (b) make what they write about matter to a large number of readers (whether they’re paid for blogging or not). The rest are really syndicated columnists and professional reviewers (whether of entertainment or gadgets). I am “none of the above.”
The movie reviews garnered, again, a small albeit appreciative audience. The couple that gained considerable attention were published over at IRO (see my take on Left Behind and especially Atlas Shrugged). Yet never once have I been asked to review a new film by a magazine or website. Not sure why, other than there’s such a thing as being too strange. Or anosognosic. Or old.
But the posts that really did best were usually of the Christianity vs. the world sort, or the Lutheranism vs. the 10,000 other varieties of Christianity kind, and, alas, I do not want to write about religion anymore. I cannot write about religion anymore, at least not in the way I once did. And so there goes a large contingent of my already small squad of readers.
It’s definitely time to go do something else. What that is, I have no idea.
Play to your strength, I always say, to myself, in my head, and so I shall. I just have to find out what that is. Maybe I’ll become a professional jai alai speller. I toy with the idea of getting my real estate license, just something to do on the weekends, to make some extra bread. The market is really hopping here in Delaware. But that would mean talking to strangers about what they want, and already I don’t care. So potential for success in that field is slim. Maybe I’ll go back to school and get a degree (or is it a certificate? license? permission slip?) in chiropractic, having been in need of one since forever.2 (A chiropractor, not a permission slip.) But that would entail actually touching strangers, the prospect of which is only slightly less creepy than doing the limbo with Aileen Wornos. (That’s not a euphemism or anything. I mean literally the limbo. Where you dip under the stick thingee like you’re trying to sneak into the circus. Or don’t they do that anymore? At parties I mean, not the circus. The last time I went to a party that was not professionally mandated, I was excoriated for not holding a record album “by the edges” and bogarting the Fresca.)
I know a lot about nutrition, too, but a degree in food science probably requires classes in chemistry, and that would cut into the time I spend curating my collection of Britcoms. I mean, what do you call a show like The Two Ronnies? It’s not a sitcom proper, and not a variety show. Sketch comedy, I guess. But should that be a subcategory of sitcom or a thing unto itself—and if the latter, do you put Not the Nine O’Clock News on there too? With Monty Python? It almost seems like the Pythoners should be a category all their own. And if that’s the case, do you add Rutland Weekend Television because of Eric Idle? But The Rutles, which was a spinoff, is sheer mockumentary. Oh hell…
This is not going to be easy. Discovering a new hobby that won’t interfere with pondering frivolous and wholly invented conundra is practically a full-time job in itself.
Before I sign off, I want to thank everyone who checked in here regularly, and who followed me over from Luther at the Movies and First Things. It meant, and means, more than you know.
This blog will self-destruct by year’s end.
1 Did I ever tell you my Kurt Vonnegut story? (I know I’ve told you my David Letterman story, and of course my Sylvester Stallone story, my other pathetic brushes with greatness.) If I have, please forgive this reindulgence, but my visit to Vonnegut’s Memorial Library in Indianapolis over the Thanksgiving weekend brought it to mind. I was a big Vonnegut fan in college, despite the fact that most of my instructors, adjuncts, and full professors had, if not quite disdain for, a somewhat cynical view of his talents. Well, one night, I want to say in 1989—although it could have been 1990, so don’t hold me to this in court or anything—I had a dream. I was in a bookstore perusing a shelf, a low shelf, of Vonnegut’s books, and there was only one title left, the only title at the time that I had not read: Bluebeard. And I grabbed a copy. OK. End of dream. The very next day I’m walking on Lexington Avenue toward the Citicorp Center, and who do I see sitting on the low, shelf-like protuberance that wrapped around the west side of the building but Kurt Vonnegut, baggy clothes and shaggy hair and smoking and reading—the full Vonnegut. (He lived in Turtle Bay, which was not far.) In those days the Citicorp Center had a Doubleday bookstore in the atrium. I rushed down the steps and ran inside. I looked at the bottom shelf of “FICTION” (bottom because “Vonnegut” begins with a “V”), and what do I see? One last copy of, you guessed it, Bluebeard. I paid for it and ran back upstairs. Thank goodness he was still there, lounging, not a care in the world. I asked him if he would sign it. “Sure,” he said. I offered him a ballpoint. He said: “Nah, I’ve got a better one,” and pulled out a felt-tip. “What’s your name?” “Anthony.” “Whaddaya do?” “Well, I’m trying to be a writer.” Vonnegut finished signing, inimitable doodle and all, handed me back the book, and with a big smile said, “Good luck!”
Over the years I’ve meditated on what that whole episode meant, the premonition and all. What are the odds? And then it dawned on me. Of course! It meant that all of history, all of human evolution, from the Big Bang to this very moment, was engineered for one purpose and one purpose only—so that Kurt Vonnegut would sell one more copy of Bluebeard.
See what I did there? Sirens of Titan? Get it? Oh you guys are no fun anymore…
2 At last count I have a lateral curvature of the thoracic spine; stenosis; arthritis that starts at the cervical and ends at the sacral curve, with attendant spurs; and a herniated disc at L3. And yet I am able to go about my daily business with amazing agility. I even continue to lift weights, though I rarely know what to do with them once they’ve been lifted (which explains why I am so often late for work). Call it the power of positive thinking. Or of clinical-grade morphine.*
* That was a joke, in case anyone from the DEA or Homeland Security is reading this. In fact, I suffer from an almost stoical, even ascetic, drug-avoidance propensity, which is probably why my cortisol levels are eligible for Guinness World Record status, and why after thirty years of weightlifting, no one has ever accused me of using steroids. Or of lifting weights. I can just about bench my bodyweight, assuming I’m weighed on Pluto.