When we were younger, my best friend, Dan, and I went snowboarding in the North Carolina mountains. It was so bright everywhere—the sky was this electric, herniating blue, and the sun was blinding off the snow. While we were riding up the Sugar Mountain lift, Dan became concerned that his face was getting sunburned, and I recalled I had some Blistex with SPF. I offered him the tub and he slathered it all over his face. When he returned it, I realized that I wasn’t actually certain whether or not this particular Blistex contained any SPF. So, I checked it out and there was none.
I cannot, not ever, think about this without audibly laughing. I don’t really know what was in that Blistex, but it seems like rubbing medicated petroleum jelly on your face would only exacerbate his problem; add a bit of efficiency to the sun’s fury. It was, of course, an accident, and I have since been to Nepal and learned there that, not long after birth, parents lather up their babies in oil and set them out to enjoy the sunshine. Supposedly, they have very low rates of skin cancer.
Occasionally I’ll think about what I would say at Dan’s wedding, should he get married. If I can figure out a metaphor, maybe I’ll include the Blistex story. Another option is sharing when Dan and I decided to split a chicken pot pie and I got my half first, but the pie was still so hot that the gravy and filling from his side kept spilling onto my side of the pan and I ended up leaving him a half moon of dry, deflated crust. The obvious metaphor here is a bit bleak and I don’t think all that representative of our friendship in spite of the only information about it that I’ve included here.
I’ve thought about talking about my indecision on what to say as part of the speech. I would say how I considered just saying all of Dan’s impressive accomplishments as a tribute to how well he’s lived, but then I would joke that I didn’t want it to sound like a funeral. I would say how I considered speaking about the beauty of love and marriage and commitment, and after I really emphasized words like eternal and forever and commitment again, I would joke that maybe it was kind of a funeral after all. I would pause to let the laughter subside, then just recall a few special moments from our friendship and wish him well with love.
There’s a chance I could just be doing this all in my head as a groomsman down the line or a witness from the audience. He has brothers and our lives have diverged somewhat over the many years, as lives are wont to do. I would be weeping because I would have figured out the Blistex thing and no one would know what was wrong with me. Of course, too, he may not marry and I’ll just have to call him one day in our fifties and tell him to put a buzz on and listen to my, finally perfect, speech.
It’s just hard to know what’s going to happen.
To illustrate, it was actually Dan who contacted me in the very first moments I sat down to write this essay to let me know that a friend of ours, one who I’d first started playing soccer with more than twenty-five years prior, had passed away. Having mentally written this essay many times, spinning considerations of big questions, I felt tragically equipped to hear the news. I’ve long been jealous of Paul Simon for writing his hit song “You Can Call Me Al,” because of how much he manages to accomplish. He takes aim at the vast turmoil of our circumstance and tries to help us understand it, consider it, and by doing so, disarm it somewhat with cautious optimism. So, yes, lurking behind dance moves with Chevy Chase, big brass, and a ripping bass solo are some lyrics worth exploring.
Why am I soft in the middle? The rest of my life is so hard. We’re just learning in the beginning. Simon teeters us on the individual and immense relentlessly. We meet a man, but what we truly meet is man. As soon as we can command any depth of understanding, there are concerns. These concerns are what we fear and hope for, challenges before us, expectations, where we end and how we get there—the arc of our lives. We learn torment—the worst thing in this world—and to ask what’s worth what, what we’ll fight, run from, surrender to.
It is with this shotgun blast of a first stanza that Simon lays his baseline. Life is hard. I think that’s unassailable. If there is any ease, respite, it is because hardness allows it. The universe seems nothing if not balanced. It would be nice, amidst all the hardness for a short redemption, some triumph, some good as a product of some bad. Simon then holds us in the alternative for what feels like a disproportionate amount of time, nearly half the first verse. The alternative is finding no triumph, letting life do to us what it will. This is where torment and shame live, erosive and convincing demons that they are. This is the feared path toward the cartoon, the mocked, expendable man who lost at whatever it is we’re doing here. And the fate is worse than that of a cautionary tale because he is lost to irrelevance, lost in the indiscernible sea of everything else buried and forgotten. What is more frightening than this?
And now we can begin to play on our fears. The bonedigger bullies holding us in the nightmare; we understand the discrepancy between the fear in our imagination and reality, but I don’t know that that knowledge does much to weaken it. We have all held ourselves hostage. Mr. Beerbelly, please! And who is this bully, keeping us from home, safety, our well-lit door? Our subconscious? God? Are we at war, alone, throwing sticks at a tank because what would it mean to throw nothing?
And when it becomes too overwhelming, exhaustion lurks—nothing more decisive. I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore. So, something must happen. We have a universal appreciation that life is hard, there are pitfalls and things to be afraid of, but there is no profit in that celebration and we’ve got to figure out what to do about it.
I’ll write briefly about the refrain. It seems to have an anecdotal backstory regarding Simon and his then wife being called the wrong names at a party. I think that helps ground the lyrics for Simon and escape the universality a bit. What matters to me, to us, are the bodyguard and the long-lost pal. We need help in this world. We need a partner, support. It’s a great refrain indeed that says I’ll be what you need for you if you be what I need for me.
And there is evidence that our man comprehends this. But in great triumph lies the potential for greater tragedy. The scope of his concerns has narrowed, namely his attention. Attention has the qualities of being kept and lost, and a short one indicates loss. And in the tremendous balance of our universe, we must have something before we can lose it. There is evidence that our man, and the most successful of us, has bristled at the hardness of life, quieted the dogs in the moonlight, availed himself of some support and begun to entertain the fears of privilege; the inability to hold what we have. How quickly we can unravel. What can little mistakes build? Can we compromise our situation? What if we do and it ends that way? How frightening to explore loneliness.
Simon leaves no doubts as to the man’s understanding of right and wrong, just as the mentally healthy of us cannot deny our own. Ducked, shameful verb, down the alley, the clichéd wrong place even in cartoons, roly-poly, bat-faced—all dripping with tragic self-awareness.
The specifics of his action hardly matter other than to say the things we are susceptible to are always there. All along, all along. In rehab (life is hard) I had a counselor who said, referring to alcoholism, “This thing does pushups while you sleep.” What he meant was that our would-be destroyers are patient. They keep their blades sharp even as we deny them.
By this point in life, I think we pretty much know all the questions, and we know some answers, believe we know others, seek to deny knowing still other answers, or know we won’t learn the answer unless it comes after this life is over. And I think later in mid-life is a pretty accurate time to arrive at this condition. So, too, the ending verse of the song is without a question.
Instead we have a bit of triumph. You may find yourself wanting to roll your eyes at the level of cliché I’m about to use, but I’d caution you not to. After all, we don’t avoid the cliché of traveling on wheels, punctuating our sentences, eating cereal with milk, etc. Why should we avoid something more valuable: a lovely, scarce truth of life? Simon offers a general sentiment of there is always hope, life is worth living, don’t give up, triumph isn’t always where you expect it. The saving grace is the majesty of this world, of humanity. How better to illustrate that than to strip a tormented man of all he knows, bathe him in loneliness and shame, and place him in a foreign land, unable to communicate, destitute, but devoid of distraction, left only to pay attention to what he can. The beauty of basic equality that loneliness can never conquer; that we’re all in this thing together.
And I’m left only now to ask why for my friend and to hate that he’s gone and remember his hugs and that our time spent together was happy and filling. There are fears we don’t know and don’t share, and who knows where in the song he was, where I am, who our bully is, where the third-world street is. That’s what makes the song so great, its accessibility; that it can be one thing for you and another for me, yet by listening we can share the same experience, the same basic understanding. Doesn’t Simon help destigmatize admitting difficulties by asserting their universality? Doesn’t “You Can Call Me Al” help encourage a supportive community of citizens to collectively lighten our torment? There are things I don’t talk about with Dan and ought to; things he could help me with. There may be burdens he carries that I could help shoulder. It could be that keeping memories present is enough, that we can keep living the history of our friendship forever as long as we preserve it. A quote that has debated attribution, but is likely inspired by the writings of Irvin D. Yalom, says, “I mean they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” So, I’ll keep my long-lost pal alive in the ways that I can, and offer bittersweet gratitude to him for what his passing helps me appreciate and apply.
As of this writing I am thirty-four years old; so was my friend, and every age he ever was, for as long as anyone will remember. We take our memories and experiences with us to help us with what’s next, to say I’ve seen this before, I know what to do or maybe I won’t see this again, I better pay attention. We take everyone else with us too. We can listen to a song and hear our life in it, and it helps to know our neighbor hears theirs too. If you’ve read this then you’ve thought of me and Paul Simon and Dan and my friend and maybe, then, your friend, your family, people you’ve lost, people you haven’t met yet, things you’re scared of and things you’re ready for. The Kurt Vonnegut that wrote Jailbird would celebrate the hardships—assuming we still arrive at the triumphant end—of the song; the plight of our lives. For without it, he imagines, we might meet Saint Peter for him to only say, “You never lived, my boy. Who can say what you are?”
We share in the experience of humanity. We should love that and keep an eye on one another—watch out for incidents and accidents. All along, all along.
Christopher Forrest lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with his wife and three young children. He earned his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and works as Poetry Editor for Press 53 and Prime Number Magazine. His work has recently appeared in Heirlock, The American Journal of Poetry, Cagibi, and elsewhere. He spends most of his time chasing his kids around, and prefers vinegar-based BBQ sauce.
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