Insensible Cities

Occupational Wellness

Hesiod James is lying on a couch of burgundy leather in the office of psychiatrist Dr. Phthaustus [fthou’sto?s], the two engaged in a lofty discourse on aesthetics with specific regards to the responsibilities of the reader versus those of the writer in works of fantasy. One is a man of faith.

HESIOD JAMES: I’m not saying a cat can eat endless portions of lasagna—that’s impossible. They just made it seem that way for a gag, you know? Suspension of disbelief.

(The other is a man of science.)

DOCTOR PHTHAUSTUS: But it’s already a cartoon. Obviously they couldn’t afford to train a real animal, so why heap impossibilities upon impossibilities? It’s absurd.

HJ: Right.

DP: Right.

(A man of science would note here that the two have seemed to agree but in fact failed to communicate; a man of faith would find this note either redundant or amusing; the agnostic reader has fallen asleep, along with the writer.)

That’s thirty minutes. We have twenty more.

HJ: Let’s start with my weekend, and then I’ll transition into a shameful childhood memory involving my father.

DP: (whistles) Tick-tock.

HJ: …So we played in New Egypt, New Jersey. Ever been there?

DP: No, but I heard things.

HJ: Is that a De Niro joke?

DP: You talking to me?

HJ: Jesus, Doc, I’m trying to. This is serious.

DP: Okay, okay.

HJ: Anyway, it was the weirdest venue: a place called Agway. The stage was a loading dock for where they sell horse shit or something to farmers. I didn’t even know New Jersey had farms.

DP: Country must be country-wide.

HJ: Ew. After the show, a couple kids asked me to sign their shirts. Nice kids. They were parked near the bus in a huge truck caked in dried mud, so much mud that it was obvious they were showing it off as some kind of trophy, the result of taking a powerful truck up into the woods and driving it through bogs of wet dirt—they call it mud boggin’, or muddin’.

DP: Woo!

HJ: Seeing that truck reminded me of this time my Dad took me camping with a friend and his two sons—your standard “let’s be dudes in the woods” bullshit. I don’t remember if I actually enjoyed camping as a kid, but I probably didn’t since it didn’t involve staring at a screen for hours, collecting coins. And I definitely didn’t enjoy mud-boggin’ because that, the event that would define the whole thing, is what my dad’s friend treated us to on the second day of that weekend; we’d anticipate it on Friday, do it on Saturday, and then romanticize it on the way home Sunday. And by we I mean they.

DP: Right.

HJ: I get it, though, you know? I think my Dad’s friend was an engineer, so he was no simpleton. I could imagine how a person of “applied science” could dig on that whole man vs. nature thing: the foot bone’s connected to the engine bone, the engine bone’s connected to the—

DP: (clap) Tires bone.

HJ: Yeah! And that extension of body just screams out for friction against the slime, because achieving friction is emancipation itself. In the meantime, that goop sprays up in the air like blowing a huge load all over the face of nature, the ultimate oppressor. You know what I’m saying?

DP: Sounds like fun.

HJ: Maybe for you. So that Saturday night we’re sitting around the campfire, eating hotdogs and s’mores, and they’re bragging about how much mud they’d slung just like they’d killed a bunch of Trojans or beaten Zelda II or something. And then, with a chubby mouthful of junk food, I unload my two cents: “Well, I thought it was boring.” You’da thought someone had shown that engineer a picture of his own grave, and he responded with something quite rude. I mean, I’m just a kid, you remember. So I look at my dad as if to say, “What’s this guy’s problem?” but he’s just foaming at the mouth, pissed… at me! As a kid, I’m thinking it’s no big deal to criticize the entertainment value of bouncing around like a bunch of assholes in an old pickup truck for hours. It didn’t mean I didn’t like my Dad’s friend or his kids—they’re good enough people—but I didn’t care for their pastime. Free speech, right?

DP: Not in here. Ha ha ha.

HJ: Yeah, so to punish me my dad sends me to bed in our camper with no more dinner (I put away a lot of dinner in those days). But the point is I remember feeling ashamed for embarrassing my father and insulting his friend. But it wasn’t fair because I wasn’t trying to judge anyone; I was innocently expressing my lack of enthusiasm for such a waste of time. And now I’m stuck in a career where I have nothing in common with the people I serve, and I’m not just talking about country music fans but also the artists and business people who sign the checks that perpetuate my livelihood, which is a lie, a bald-faced lie, a lie I’ll eventually have to reckon with when my life is deemed to have amounted to x number of years spinning up mud in the woods with a big dumb truck.

DP: Alright, enough. Let me paraphrase.

(The man of science begins his inquiry by gathering the facts.)

First, you were a very fat kid.

(The man of faith responds emotionally to the facts.)

HJ: I wasn’t THAT fat.

DP: Shhh. You were fat, deluded, elitist—

HJ: Deluded? Well, excuse me for dreaming.

DP: I find it interesting that you didn’t object to elitist.

(And they have successfully lost the point.)

HJ: Of course I’m elitist! Provincial public schooling is like Whack-a-Mole for mediocrity. Every kid’s a potential astronaut except for the one that could actually become an astronaut: he’s just a know-it-all.

DP: I see. So what you’re saying is, you didn’t get laid at all in school.

HJ: Are you kidding me? My dick was like a compass that pointed south…

(They share a brief silence to reflect on the comic efficacy of what has just been uttered, the doctor staring at the ceiling while Hesiod squints with arms crossed, awaiting judgment. A hanging portrait of Freud slowly shakes his head in disappointment.)

DP: That didn’t really make sense—

HJ: Yeah, it sounded weird coming out.

DP: Well, that’s our time.

(Is there any hope of an intelligible coda?)

HJ: Geez, Doc. I share a childhood memory, I tie it into a relevant concern about my career not reflecting a worthy life’s work, and then you sum up by insulting me. Why do I even pay you?

DP: I’m not sure. Half of me thinks you just want me to tell you how smart you are, and the other half thinks you get stage fright standing at the urinal in public restrooms.

HJ: Ha ha, very funny.

DP: Is it? Consider what Louis Pasteur once said: “There are no such things as applied sciences, only applications of science.” The same thing could be said of heritage. You don’t enjoy driving a truck through the mud, but it’s still a part of your heritage as a white guy from a small town. You can blaze all the novel trails of self-inquiry you want, but you’ll never outrun those folks that go to church every Sunday, listen to country radio, and fear black people.

HJ: I don’t fear black people.

DP: Doesn’t matter. What matters is that your redneck heritage requires you to field the question. You could say you’re an atheist, but that won’t remove the influence of small town Protestantism from your character. So you see, you’re a mud-boggin’, Alan Jackson listenin’, fart sniffin’ redneck whether you like it or not; hence, you’re right at home playing country music for a living. Hell, considering the intensity of your laziness, insecurity, and sense of entitlement, I couldn’t think of a better occupational fit than being a support beam for B-level country stars. Imagine working more than three hours a week in the same city, surrounded by people who never ask for your autograph, not having anything to drink until five o’clock.

HJ: God, that does sound awful.

DP: Good, I’m late for kickball.

(stands, gathers briefcase)

HJ: Why do you play kickball?

DP: Exercise, fellowship.

(The man of faith attempts to relate to the man of science.)

HJ: Did you grow up in a small town, too, Doc?

(The man of science does not relate.)

DP: Dear God, no. I’m rich, and our heritage transcends geography. Now get out of my office.


Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.