The old detective show, Dragnet, always contained a scene in which the humorless just-the-facts-ma’am Joe Friday would become irritated by some clueless civilian and give a speech of such power and force that it reduced the poor guy to a quivering tower of Spam aspic. When Joe finished, the four-note theme music — ta da da dum — would play, a rim shot to Joe’s crushing of his hapless opponent.
I have interactions in which I crush people like Joe Friday did. In my head. Over and over. Even when I don’t want to. And I can’t stop doing it. Even when I really want to.
An evil worm wiggles into my brain where it manufactures these ill-natured imaginary dialogues, and it won’t go away until it‘s ready. I can go weeks, sometimes months, without it showing up and then, like my eczema, suddenly there it is. Itching. Squirming around in my consciousness.
The catalyst for my imaginary conversations will be one of the ordinary annoyances that occur because I live among other humans. Something inconsequential. And I mean inconsequential not only in the big picture, the overall scheme of things, but also in the small picture, the little tiny picture. I suffer some minor slight or provocation, and I am that night awake in bed at 2:00 A.M. mentally screenwriting a conversation in which I, the reincarnation of Joe Friday, crush the spirit of whoever is the object of my ire this time around.
And it won’t shut off.
When I am driving, I want to be listening to those great tunes, the best in the world, the ones that came out when I was nineteen, and instead of rocking to the beat and being in the dorms again, I am imagining, revising, reimagining, and re-revising a nasty comeuppance for a conversation that will never take place.
I am reading, say a great or even not so great novel, and I discover the novel is laying on the arm of my La-Z-Boy and I am staring into the air once again rehearsing what I should have said to that guy from customer service at the cable company.
I am mostly a happy guy. It’s not because I’ve followed the ten essential rules for happiness, or because I have money, or because I have a good marriage. It’s because I lucked out and got the happy gene. But the happy gene is helpless against my imaginary conversations. They suck the joy out of living.
I have tried several ways to turn them off.
Decades ago, when I had to stop drinking, I turned to a twelve-step program. These days, in dealing with less deadly conditions, I turn to a three-step program, a program enshrined in the annals of manly wisdom.
1. Get over it
2. Don’t think about it.
3. Walk it off.
The three-step program works well for a lot of things, but it has proved useless when I am beset by the unwelcome internal conversations.
I tried meditation. When the worm is in my brain, my sitting quietly in or out of the lotus position is exactly what I don’t need. I tried exercise. I have worked my muscles until I am exhausted, hoping to be so tired I can sleep undisturbed. It hasn’t worked. When the worm is at its evil task, neither a brisk walk nor warm covers will put a stop to it.
I tried switching the conversations to Spanish on the theory that my Spanish is so bad I wouldn’t be able to devise those clever retorts needed to dominate my imaginary foe and I would give up like I always do with my attempts to read books in Spanish. That didn’t work. As soon as my mind wandered for a moment, I abandoned the Spanish instead of the conversation.
I’ve tried distraction. No luck. Although ordinarily not much of a multitasker, I can work on a Joe Friday comeuppance that will never happen while doing Wordle, playing online blitz chess, or putting together Ikea furniture.
I’ve tried mindfulness, being in the moment, paying attention to the minutiae of everyday life. Nothing. If anything, small segments of everyday life are as apt to annoy me as enlighten me, and they do not prevent me from designing imaginary scenarios in which my enemies are all vanquished.
I tried replacement. I’ve turned on cable news or browsed Twitter trolls hoping that the us-vs-them nonsense one finds there will suck me in and replace the current subject of my distress with something different. No luck.
I’ve tried achieving perspective, looking at the long term and the big picture, and that doesn’t work. My internal conversations never address the great issues of the day or the philosophical questions that have plagued mankind for a thousand years. They concern the homeowners association president telling me I cannot put my garbage and recycling on the curb prior to four in the afternoon, or the guy at church who thinks his driving old ladies to do their shopping is more Christian than my spreading bark dust at the spring cleanup event. I go for the petty stuff and hate myself for it.
Similarly, I am not triggered into these mental tar pits by criminals, psychopaths or dictators. I save my internal vengeance for good average people who inadvertently rub me the wrong way.
The only thing that has ever worked to get rid of the worm is patience. Like having The Lion Sleeps Tonight stuck in your head, the beast eventually leaves on its own. My eczema itches until it quits. My internal conversations are there until they’re not.
The good news is that with retirement from the practice of law, I deal less with lawyers and angry people, which reduces the frequency of my rumination. The bad news is that it is quite possible that in my final moments on earth, as I prepare to meet my maker, instead of seeing my life pass before my eyes, instead of clinging to the joy of being alive, I will be inventing the perfect sarcastic retort with which to humiliate that overworked nurse who was inadvertently rude to me a week earlier.