On one of the long motoring vacations my family used to take — five kids on a mattress in the back of the station wagon, our parents in front sharing the driving, heading down a highway in the Yukon Territories or on the Canadian prairies or some other far-flung place of the sort my father preferred — I saw my brother Dave writhing and wincing in pain. Of the siblings, I am the oldest, and Dave the second oldest. In those days, I found certain of his sufferings to be of scientific interest; on occasion, I even did what I could to increase them, just for the sake of experiment. In this case, I observed him screwing up his features, muttering to himself, and once in a while shaking his head like a horse in a cloud of flies. Finally I asked him what was wrong. "I can't stop thinking about the words 'inclined plane!'" he said. "No matter what I do they keep running through my head: inclined plane inclined plane inclined plane!" Our mother turned around and tried to comfort him, suggesting that he just think of something else, but Dave replied that trying to think of something else only caused him to think of inclined plane more. He sat there, beset and wretched, the golden inclined plains of Canada (or wherever) rolling past our station-wagon windows.
The day eventuated, as travel days do. We stopped at a point of interest, ate at a little restaurant in a little town, checked into a motel. After the bouncing on the beds, the putting on of pajamas, the listening to of stories read by our father, Dave and I got into one twin bed and the three younger kids into the other. As the lights went out, and our eyes adjusted to the single beam falling through the opening in the door between our parents' room and ours, a wicked realization crossed my mind. "Dave," I whispered, "inclined plane." I was rewarded with a moan like the moan of the damned.
The old saying about history occurring first as tragedy and the second time as farce seems to work in reverse order for me. Jokes I make, often at someone else's expense, have a way of turning up later as real and strangely less funny problems in my own life. My brother's affliction proved to be contagious: Getting a name or a phrase or a few bars of music stuck in my head has become one of the minor banes of existence for me. At certain moments, I have practically prayed for a distraction to dislodge whatever happens to be stuck, much as hiccup sufferers hope for an unexpected and curative fright. For years I lived in New York City and had distractions to spare; in New York, no idea survives in the mind for any length of time. But then I moved to a rural place where the distractions amounted to (1) the smell of pine needles and (2) time to put gas in the car. In such a distraction-free environment, idëes fixes float through the air and catch in the folds of my brain like invisible wind-borne cockleburs.
One afternoon not long ago I was out fishing. The day was warm and sunny, the river clear and wadable, the fish rising. In short, nothing about the day or the fishing conditions needed improvement. As I worked my way up a brushy bank, I saw, in a patch of light among the bushes' underwater shadows, a large rainbow trout readjusting his position. He materialized in the patch of light so clearly that I could see his greenish-gold back, his regularly spaced black speckles, the flash of pink behind his gills. In the next second he was back in the shadows, invisible again. Almost simultaneously, I became aware that I was thinking obsessively of the name Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel.
Well, that did it. I knew how the rest of my fishing afternoon would go. "Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel...Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel," said my brain, matching the syllables to the mechanics of my cast. I looked about hopelessly for a change of subject. With a high-pitched cry, an osprey coasted overhead, plunged down, and Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogeled a fish from the shallows. The Barbaralee
Diamonstein-Spielvogel ripples widened and grew. Do you know who Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel is? I'm not sure I do. She's a society person in New York, I think. Her name is as infectious as pinkeye. Running now on inertia alone, I joylessly fished through the halcyon afternoon, inwardly, unstoppably praying,
Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Forgive us for what we have done.
Further, this is the kind of malady that qualifies the sufferer for no sympathy at all. That afternoon, I may have caught fish or I may not; I can't remember. I know that I arrived home when I had said I would, outwardly intact, with no obvious grounds for complaint. And yet inwardly, how flummoxed I was, how vexed! What could I answer my wife and children when they asked how I had enjoyed my afternoon? "It was OK, but I couldn't stop thinking of the name Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel." Or, more honestly and more pitifully, "Help me! The name Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel is about to drive me insane!"