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Personal Essays

The Crap in My Head

Little things people say can get stuck in your brain and become triggers, forcing you to relive moments you’d rather forget. Well, for aspiring linguists, it’s much, much worse.

Ronald Ventura, Pop!, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Art.

Years ago I applied for a teaching job in linguistics. In the interview, I identified one area, the history of the English language, as my favorite. A professor on the hiring committee agreed. “It’s so rich,” she said. Since then, whenever someone characterizes something as “rich,” I think of this woman, this interview. It happens about once a month. That is not the crap in my head.

I desperately wanted this particular college to hire me. The letter I received from the department chair began, “This is one of those good-news, bad-news letters.” The good news, he said, was that I had come in second. The bad news was that they were offering the job to someone else, a person who I figured would accept the offer, so the good news was the bad news, and the department chair had completely misused the expression. Now, whenever I hear “good-news, bad-news,” I think of that day, that letter, that doofus. It happens about once a week. That is not the crap in my head.

Shortly after receiving this letter, I learned that the candidate who took the job was actually a graduate school classmate of mine who had precociously published two scholarly articles while we were still students. The hiring faculty, overstimulated by the young fellow’s promise, had somehow not noticed the more important fact that the articles were very bad indeed. One of them ended with the phrase “and then we shall see what we shall see.” Now, whenever an outcome is uncertain, I think, “We shall see what we shall see,” and the thought is always followed by a stampede of associations back to my failed job application, my rival for it, his face, his big mustache, his long-collared shirts. Because earthly existence is chock-full of uncertain outcomes, I think of this usurper every day of my life. That is the crap in my head.

I did get a teaching job somewhere else, and, like most beginning teachers, for a while I stunk up the classroom. A student told me so in a face-to-face chat in my office. She always covered her hair with a silk scarf, tightly knotted under her chin. I thought of her as the student with the toothache. I might have forgotten all about her if she hadn’t used the word “iota.” She said that she had not learned “one iota” from me, “not one.” People say “iota” more often than you would think.            

Frank Sinatra. If I hear his voice, I think of the song “My Way” and the line “Regrets, I’ve had a few,” and I want to shout, “A few?” When I do, I am not thinking of Frank Sinatra’s life.

On another occasion, while in the same office, I heard the murmur of an oral report being delivered to the history teacher next door. The student’s words, though muffled by the wall between us, were energetic and impassioned. When the report ended, there came some comments from the prof, who sounded no less pompous for being unintelligible. He concluded with a curt pronouncement, and the student cried out, “A B? A B?” Now, whenever I am menaced by a bee, I think, “A bee,” and the thought becomes the plaintive cry, “A B?” and I go on to think about things I do not want to think about—the eternally sad dyad of scholar and pupil and the fact that Fate, which could have delivered a potential friend to me as a next-door office neighbor, instead gave me a braggart who, if his house were on fire, would call 911 and shout, “Help! My Harvard diploma is burning!”

My preferred name of contempt for bad drivers is “turkey,” as in “Nice signal, turkey,” and when I say it—as I must—I always think of the German words “Und übermorgen in der Türkei” (“and the day after tomorrow in Turkey”). I heard them spoken long ago at an Austrian summer school, where I struggled with the subjunctive and other mysteries. A German language teacher predicted the ETA for an eastbound friend of his, who was going to Vienna that day and Budapest the next. “Und übermorgen in der Türkei,” the teacher joked, and we smiled and thought about what a cool word “übermorgen” was. The association from the pejorative “turkey” to the name of the country and this summer school is annoying in its predictability, and it is so weird that it truly makes me feel alone in the universe, but otherwise it is emotionally neutral.

However, at that same summer school, another American, an older fellow who pronounced German so terribly that he sounded like a wag comically imitating an American speaking bad German, repeatedly cornered me with the question, “Hast du Spass, David? Hast du wirklich Spass?” (“Are you having fun, David? Are you really having fun?”) I assured him that I was having incredible Spass, though at that precise moment I was not. Did I look like someone who lacked for Spass? Do I still?

I have been to one high school reunion in my life. It did not go well. I was not interesting or witty or anything I long to be. Moreover, I learned that at such reunions people comment rather freely on one another’s appearance, and evidently my face had gone in the direction of Dorian Gray’s portrait—not through dissipation, unfortunately, but just owing to the battle of life. It was “Hast du Spass?” all over again. The word that occurred to me, without its actually being spoken, was “careworn.” Luckily, people don’t say “careworn” very often.

However, at one point a group at the reunion talked about our growing forgetfulness and how we now found ourselves going into a room to perform a task and then forgetting to do it. This happens “especially if you do something else,” in the words of the woman who had been most active in the discussion of my face. Now, whenever I exit a room having neglected an intended task because I did something else—in other words, a dozen times a day—I think of this woman, my social failure at the reunion, and the scorched earth of my face.

Frank Sinatra. If I hear his voice, I think of the song “My Way” and the line “Regrets, I’ve had a few,” and I want to shout, “A few?” When I do, I am not thinking of Frank Sinatra’s life.           

According to the cognitive therapy school of treatment for psychological disorders, the key to happiness is to identify one’s distressing thoughts and to change distorted, negative thinking. Cognitive therapy was established by Aaron Beck.

Aaron. I had a friend named Aaron once. Let me tell you about him.

David Carkeet is the author of six novels, including Double Negative, The Full Catastrophe, and From Away. His essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Village Voice, and Salon. He lives in Vermont, where he plays the trumpet relentlessly. More by David Carkeet