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!"
Studies have shown (or would show, if they existed) that among outdoor enthusiasts between the ages of 40 and 52 who do repetitive-motion activities like rowing, long-distance cycling, jogging, or hiking, fully 37 percent have the words to the song "In-a- Gadda-Da-Vida" echoing in their brains. Those shrink-wrapped cross-country bicycle riders you see strung out for miles along state highways in the middle of the country are an internalized procession of the peskiest and most virus-like of Top 40 tunes from the past. Do you recall, by any chance, the robotic "I'm Telling You Now," by Freddie and the Dreamers? Almost certainly, cross-country bicyclists of a certain age do. The next time you see one stopped by the side of the road, pull over and roll down your window and sing a few bars of "I'm Telling You Now" for him. He may curse you and carry it with him all the way to Minneapolis-St. Paul. On the other hand, he may thank you for driving out what had been torturing him before, a song that went something like "Why do you build me up, Buttercup, baby, just to let me down, mmmm mmmm mess me around," and so on, to which he could recall only the tune and a smattering of lyrics but not the title or the name of the group. From the brain's point of view, imperfection of memory is no obstacle. The brain runs through the little it does recall quite cheerfully and endlessly just the same. It likes the dumbest things. Why doesn't it replay great symphonies, in full 100-piece orchestration? If we had only known, in the sixties, that these three-chord hit songs on the radio were going to accompany us into eternity — well, I'm sure back then we wouldn't have cared.
I carry guide books with me when I hike, to identify flora and fauna that catch my eye. Once identified, their names escape from me in an instant, like the names of strangers at a crowded party. Over the last year, I have learned the dogtoothed violet, the serviceberry bush, and the false morel mushroom — only a tiny percentage of all the specimens that I have looked up. Although I refer to a conifer guide when I'm cross-country skiing, I am still not trustworthy on the difference between a spruce and a fir. (Now I remember — a fir has short, flat needles, and a spruce has short, pointy needles that aren't as flat. I think.) But let the smallest piece of commercial-packaging trash appear along the trail, and I can give you the species, genus, and phylum every time. That fan of reflected light, for example, flickering stroboscopically in the rippling current of the creek, comes from a flattened part of a beer can on the creek bottom, a beer can that even at this distance I can identify as belonging to the genus Budweiser and the species Bud Dry.
That's the hard part: living with the realization that we have junk-filled brains. Much of the litter we bring with us into the wilderness is of the mental variety; past a certain point, our minds really cannot grasp places that are completely trash-free. The Fanta Grape soda can drawing bees in the middle of a supposedly pristine wilderness campsite provokes our outrage and disgust, of course. But underneath those feelings, and less comfortable to admit, is a small amount of recognition and even relief. The Fanta can is us, after all. In the nineteenth century, when the cult of the Scenic had just begun, advertisers (especially in New England) took to plastering giant advertising slogans on the scenery itself. Hikers who reached far-flung lookout points in the Adirondacks or the Berkshires would see the words VISIT OAK HALL on a rock face in the prospect before them. (Oak Hall was a Boston clothing store.) Even more remarkable is how few of them seem to have complained.
The other day, while enjoying one of my two distractions — putting gas in the car — I noticed that a candy company had managed to set an advertisement into the previously neglected space between the top of the gas pump handle's grip and the base of the nozzle. It featured a full-color photograph of a candy bar and the words, "Hungry? Try a ______." I wondered: If I asked, do you suppose they would buy space on the inside of my eyelids? Nowadays, advertisers no longer bother to afflict the scenery. Today they think small and specific; they know that the best medium is the individual consciousness itself. With so much of our commerce trying to inveigle its tiny way into our waking and sleeping thoughts, some of it is bound to stick, adding to the random detritus, songs and phrases and floating bits of near nonsense, there already. We will never get rid of it all. We can only be thankful that it follows its own slow cycle of decay; at least we no longer murmur, as we drift off to sleep by the campfire light, "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" or "Visit Oak Hall."
We can be thankful, too, that it stops with us. Most animals, for example, do not like to watch TV. What a blessing that is! Bad enough that the raccoons show up regularly to plunder the garbage cans out back; how much worse if they showed up regularly in the branches by the living room window to catch the Thursday night lineup on NBC. With TVs in every cage and caged animals staring at them, zoos would be even grimmer places than they already are. What we have in common with the rest of nature goes deeper than advertising, deeper than words. One way to regard the annoying phrase stuck in the mind is as a boundary marking where the not-human begins. The last time I fished I caught big brown trout one after another, prehistoric-looking battlers with banana-yellow bellies and inky spots the size of dimes on their sides. Several of them jumped at me when they felt the hook, appearing suddenly in the air and fixing me with their wild eyes. As I revived them before releasing them, my two hands barely able to fit around the cold, quick sides, I looked again and again at their eyes. They held a concentrated intentionality, a consciousness I could only guess at. And yet I knew for absolute certain that (Everybody was Kung Fu fighting) unlike me the trout did not have the words (Those cats were fast as lightning) to a 1970s pop tune (In fact it was a little bit frightening) called "Kung Fu Fighting" (But they fought with expert timing) running through their brains.