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I Confess

April 21, 2024

by Dr. David Fialkoff, Editor / Publisher

My ex-wife used to live in San Miguel. Some of you know her. Although long-divorced we're still friends. She herself sometimes reads these articles. So, please, let me finish this thought before you cast judgement on either of us.

Twenty-three years ago (even then we were long-divorced), when our daughter was about to have her bat mitzvah, she and I and our daughter were standing together in her kitchen. Her mother and sister (our daughter's grandmother and aunt) were in town for the occasion. My ex complained, "My mother is crazy, and my sister is out of her mind."

My daughter looked quickly over at me, our eyes meeting for less than a second. Our faces were completely expressionless, as my ex went on with her complaint. But that brief father-daughter glance clearly said this; "If your mother is crazy, and your sister is out of her mind, then what does that make you?"

I have my own family history. My parents were characters. Things were emotionally difficult in our house.

Compared to my siblings, an older brother and a younger sister, I have always considered myself the fortunate one. The middle child, the second boy, 21 months younger than my brother, mostly I was overlooked. I only slightly exaggerate when I say that I didn't know that I existed until I was seven-years-old. Before my second-grade teacher praised me for my exuberance with Roman numerals, no adult had paid me any attention.

I've attributed my relative emotional well-being, relative to my siblings, to the fact that I've been braver than they were in therapeutically engaging my childhood. Critical self-reflection is tortuous. And, while that courage to face facts has made a difference, lately I've been considering that it hasn't made as much of a difference as I would like to think. If your mother is crazy and your sister is out of her mind, then what does that say about you? If my older brother and my younger sister are both emotionally stunted, how well-grown can I be?

I don't remember the name of the short film, but it made a very deep impression on me when I saw it as a boy. In it a Confederate officer is set to be executed by a small band of Union soldiers. In a beautiful country setting, beneath overhanging trees, he is standing, bound hand and foot, with a noose around his neck, on a small wooden bridge ready to be pushed off into space.

At the critical moment, the rope breaks and he falls into the lazy southern river below. Somehow, below the water's surface, he manages to free his hands and feet and throw off the noose. When he comes up for air his Yankee guards shoot at him. He resubmerges, bullets slowing down as they enter the water around him.

Miraculously, he escapes, swimming away, continuing downstream until he reaches a familiar shore, the riverbank where is his home. He pulls himself up out of the river onto the green, sun-filled lawn. His wife sees him and comes hurrying down to meet him.

Suddenly the scene changes. We see the Confederate's lifeless body dangling from the bridge. The rope did not break.

The next scene for your consideration might be from an episode of the Twilight Zone or a movie based on a Philip K. Dick story (Total Recall?), but is probably my own unwitting adaptation of Borges's story The Circular Ruins. It has two characters, one who is questioning the reality of the other's existence: "But why don't you have any memories of your childhood? If you are a man, how can it be that the fire did not burn you?"

I am that Confederate officer, dreaming of home and a woman who loves me, living an imaginary life, all in the time it takes for the rope to snap taut I am a creature of dreams like the inhabitant of Borges' jungle temple.

I would have made a great lawyer because I'm good at making excuses. I can justify my place in life, turning failures into virtues: I am a ragged philosopher, a mystic poet... But the facts of the matter, the matter of my life, render a less kind judgement. "Not guilty by reason of insanity" is a stretch, although there is a touch of madness in my family. But certainly, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will allow that there have been extenuating circumstances. And that I confess must count for something, mustn't it?

There was a kingdom whose entire grain harvest became infected with ergot, the hallucinogenic fungus (from which LSD would be derived) that caused the bizarre movements of what was called St. Vitus' Dance.

The last of last year's fungus-free grain supply, which the king and his prime minister were sharing, was running low. "What can we do?" the king moaned. "Soon we will have to eat the infected grain and we too will go crazy." The prime minister offered this partial solution, "Let us make the sign of an X on our foreheads. And then, when we see the X, at least we will remember that we are crazy."

The court asked Socrates why the Oracle at Delphi had declared him to be the wisest of men. "I don't know," he demurred, and here I am paraphrasing, "but maybe it is because other men think they know and don't, while I know that I don't know."

Knowing that I am ignorant, stunted and crazy must count for something. Or am I just making excuses?


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