We repeat: Dr. Ed’s wife was (again, again, again, predictably) out when he got home. He was on time; it was 17:15. Out shopping most likely, Dr. Ed presumed, what with the Mall now staying open late for Xmas. He’d already said as much, to himself, but he’d say it again, and again if need be: She was out (and would be out, pretty much every night now, at least until the 24th) shopping, single-handedly buoying-up the local economy, and eating up, thereby, what remained of Dr. Ed’s line of credit. But this was something that Dr. Ed did not mind, something that he was almost happy to witness, for not only was it a regular occurrence (and regularity of all kinds was always prized by Dr. Ed), one that should be a seasonal fixture of any honest calendar, secular or liturgical, it also got Dr. Ed’s wife out of Dr. Ed’s hair even more regularly than during the other eleven months of the year. So December was Dr. Ed’s favourite month of the year. The very word ‘December’ meant being bloody well left alone; it meant blissful, utter private privation, the peace & quiet of sequestral downtime. The adjective ‘sequestral’ was in fact the word that popped into his head whenever the month of December was mentioned, and a fine adjective it was, too. Dr. Ed liked how the word brought to mind a sequestered, passionately rational, impartially deliberating jury, even as its medical sense denoted the presence of dead bone or other matter, cut off from surrounding, healthy tissue. For that’s what the life of the mind demanded of you, that you die to yourself and others, that you embrace the many privations of desert life, that you remain amongst your fellows but not of them. The scholar’s world was an incorporeal, eremitical one, to be sure, as arid but also as surprisingly full of surprising life forms (and other surprises) as a real desert—as the desert of the Desert Fathers of the early Christian church, who left the teeming world of the Many behind to commune in solitude with the One.
Dr. Ed did have one close friend, however, and that was Max. He and Max went back, oh, more than ten years now, going on eleven, actually. Their friendship had endured even longer, by some months, than Dr. Ed’s relationship with his wife. They had been through a lot together, he and Max, Max and he.
And so it was with some surprise that Dr. Ed, having returned home on time, discovered Max’s name on a note (an actual note, actually pinned to the kitchen notice board, and seemingly in his wife’s very own handwriting!). Something had to be up. One of his wife’s many rules was to never leave notes describing her activities or whereabouts. This rule dated back a half-dozen years or so, to a bright summer evening when Dr. Ed, feeling on top of his game after securing yet another well-funded research project for his department, had dared to call into open question the domain, range and periodicity of his wife’s peregrinations. He shocked her still further, not only by talking back to her firm and final dismissal, but also by insisting that he had the right to ‘at least the vaguest inkling of her whereabouts.’ She turned on her heels and immediately went out to Herland at the mall, where she purchased a little device which might give her husband his due: the vaguest inkling of her whereabouts. The device resembled an overlarge board-game spinner:
Her is. . .
Today, however, his wife had unpredictably forgone the use of the spinner and had left a note. Something was up. The note read:
Out & About. . .
Max avec moi-meme. . .
Back plus, plus tard. . .
Something was up. Dr. Ed’s wife had never, ever, in the nine years of their marriage, gone anywhere with Max. She hated Max. Max was disgusting. Max stank, Max was obese, Max was constantly passing wind, Max was surly and anti-social. What’s more, Max’s mere presence made Dr. Ed’s wife (who was naturally very social) feel like she was anti-social and behave in a most unbecoming, anti-social manner. Max was not exactly a misanthrope himself, but somehow he caused other people to act misanthropically whenever he was around. But that was what Dr. Ed liked about Max: Max encouraged—no, induced solitude. Dr. Ed never felt as so-blissfully-alone as when he and Max were together.
* * *
When Dr. Ed had first made Max’s acquaintance, he felt sorely in need of a friend. Not the kind of friend who was poking his nose into your business, mind you: his nurse (Nurse Sloggett) and (of course) his wife provided him with more than a surfeit of that. No, Dr. Ed had needed somebody just like Max, someone who would just uncomplainingly be there, someone who made no demands on one’s time and patience. And Max had fit the bill nicely; together, they formed a two-member live-and-let-live-society, a tiny syndicalist collective, of sorts. Their undemanding friendship had easily weathered the demands of Dr. Ed’s burgeoning career, and had managed to survive (and even thrive) throughout the term of Dr. Ed’s nine-year marriage. Dr. Ed would sometimes shake his head, as in disbelief, at the ‘thought’ of it: nine years, huh? Now that’s not nothing, no sir, it is indeed not. But then Max and me, I mean Max and I, we go back eleven. Now that’s something.
Normally (and while, strictly speaking, only those who fall within one standard deviation from the norm would qualify as such, in this case we may judiciously include those who lie two or even three standard deviations away), when friends heed nature’s siren call to marry themselves off before it is ‘too late’ to do so, when they begin to prostrate themselves before the seemingly ineluctable goddess of fecundity and to commence vigorous and serious procreation, we begin to see much less of them than previously. Much less. So much less, in fact (as, walleyed, sallow-faced, slack-jawed, pork-chopped and dough-balled, they persevere—oh, how they persevere!—as they must, with all that ‘parenting’—such a horrid neologism—to attend to), that they may as well have signed on as conflict resolution experts and have themselves flown off to Belfast, Jerusalem or Cyprus for a decade or two.
But Dr. Ed and Max were not ‘normal’ friends. If a statistician were attempting a curve-fitting of any or all of the many parameters of friendship, Dr. Ed’s and Max’s data would certainly be termed ‘outliers’—falling well beyond the normal range. They were both as content to be with each other as they were otherwise solitary and aloof from their fellows. They each required regular, extensive amounts of time together, but when they were apart each seldom, if ever, ‘thought’ of the other; it was just assumed that each would be there, for the other, when called for—and, of course, they both always had been.
Dr. Ed saw their eleven years together as a kind of summer camp canoe trip: a safe, controlled and predictable journey when viewed in retrospect, but punctuated by useful, pulse-quickening surprises when experienced en-route. When Dr. Ed had endured his way through the nerve-numbing rapids of his engagement and the subsequent, unavoidable eddies of his marriage, Max had calmly paddled at Dr. Ed’s bow, and had provided a welcome, steady assistance through the narrows and over the rocks that came their way, never once complaining or sulking, as Dr. Ed became more and more (if that is at all possible) engrossed in his work as the years passed.
Wisely, Max had always let Dr. Ed chart his own course, and had kept his own counsel as Dr. Ed was forced to perform all manner of requisite, delicate maneuverings as they entered the serpentine switchbacks of Dr. Ed’s acquisition of a department headship. Otherwise, however, it had otherwise all been pretty much smooth sailing thereafter, as Dr. Ed had expertly J-stroked his way down the organizational river. There had been that recent, unforeseen portage (during which Max had, of course, shouldered his-share-and-thensome of the burden) when, out of the blue Dr. Ed was suddenly and genuinely (albeit somewhat unsuccessfully) reunited with his now-adult ‘son’, Ted, but Max wasn’t complaining. Life was good.
Lest, however, the impression be made that theirs was more of a parasitical than symbiotic relationship, it must be noted that Dr Ed had also been there for Max (when necessary) as well. Not only had (i.) Dr. Ed indeed sympathised-like-hell with Max over that to-do surrounding Max’s vasectomy, as well as (ii.) provided much-needed mediation during the flap that Max had had with that bitch next door—it had been Dr. Ed, after all, who had initiated their relationship in the first place. And it had been Dr. Ed, after all, who had given Max a hand-up when he had most needed it, when Max’s future prospects appeared to be at the nadir of their bleakness.
In fact, if such a one as the great Jeremy Bentham had plotted Max’s eudaemonic prospects (in hedon-units, h, against time, t) just prior to the commencement of their friendship, the resulting graph could only have suggested that the short term did not ‘look good’ (to put it euphemistically) for poor ol’ Max. The short term appeared to be so-not-good that his long-term prospects were unchartable. The short-term chart was so very contra-positive that even the notion, even the suggestion of a ‘long’ term, as far as Max was concerned, was a dream originating in an opium pipe stocked with extraordinary psychotropic powers indeed:
Now, a savvy analyst would have spotted latent problems during the period when things actually looked pretty good for Max, which corresponds to the interval between points A and B on the short-term chart. At this time in his life Max had a family, was eating well and was getting regular exercise. Life seemed pretty good to Max, and he had no complaints worth mentioning. However, although his prospects for a well-lived life were improving with respect to time here, they were improving less and less rapidly as time passed; that is, Max’s prospects were experiencing negative acceleration, until, at point B, they stopped improving altogether.
At point B, Max’s prospects were hovering, momentarily, as it were, in mid-air; but from here on in they took a long, relentless and remorseless tumble. Point B marks the occurrence of Max having embarrassed himself and his family for the, shall we say, n+1th time. The event was not in and of itself all that significant, but the n+1th time proved to be just one time too many. But it was not really poor Max’s fault: Max had digestive problems, and was thus much less well-equipped to handle the vegetarian diet that he and the rest of his family had recently and rigorously adopted. One by-product of his newly-chronic dyspepsia was a copious quantity of intestinal gas, gas which contained a remarkable concentration of various signature sulphur compounds, gas that had to be released, gas that would not be refused, gas that, despite his family’s frequent and vociferous protestations, was visited upon them at 2-4 minute intervals for 2-3 hours thrice daily, subsequent to meals.
The trajectory of the curve in between points B & C indicates an inexorable decline in prospects precipitated by a steady withdrawal of affection, which was itself occasioned by the very decline in prospects which it in turn consequently occasioned. Invariably, such negative feedback loops act in a much more protracted, almost stealthy manner than the positive loops which produce the kind of sudden rise in prospects illustrated by the curve from A to B. These negative loops work almost, as it were, invisibly, steadily eroding the subject’s quality of life and thereby nearly always ensuring that the subject enters upon of a limited number of Endgame scenarios which inevitably result in fatality —be it via individual choice, by misadventure or by ‘natural causes’.
Finally, that the change which the above curve undergoes from points C to D is characteristic of such scenarios is easily confirmed by performing a second derivative on the curve at point D, which indicates that Max’s prospects were negatively accelerating at a near-infinite rate—as the slope of a tangent to the curve at this point would be, mathematically speaking, ‘undefined.’
It was at point D, as the curve was just crossing the horizontal axis (indicating that Max’s prospects were ‘poor’—meaning, of course, that Max now possessed no prospects to speak of, whatsoever) that Dr. Ed had chosen to intervene on his behalf. He had seen a short Xmas-related feature on Max’s plight on the local evening news—the season for goodwill, aiding the needy and less fortunate and all that—and had called the station, which put him in contact with the charitable organization that wished to help Max (and many others in the same predicament), but which lacked the sufficient funds to do so. Then, moved not so much by empathy as sympathy, Dr. Ed then took Max under his wing, providing him with a roof over his head and three square meals (none vegetarian) a day.
* * *
But what was going on here? Something was up, to be sure. Dr. Ed’s brain calculated quickly, running through the various possible permutations and combinations—many of which were possible, but relatively few probable—until it settled upon the one, the only one, that his wife could have actualized, the only do-able one.
‘Do-able’ was a word that held special meaning for Dr. Ed. This was because he considered himself an ‘expert amateur’ lexicographer (expert because his vault of knowledge was a self-confessedly vast one indeed; amateur because it was something he did in his spare time, that is, whenever he had any time, which is to say, since he was a professional scientist and all-around serious person, never really very often—hardly, in fact, hardly ever, at all).
As a neologism ‘do-able’ fascinated him in a way that other neologisms did not. Take, for instance, the alleged verb ‘to impact’, e.g. ‘our increasingly negative revenue stream impacts our quarterly earnings big time.’ Now, ‘to impact’ was roughly contemporaneous, in Dr. Ed’s estimation, with ‘do-able’: Dr. Ed clearly remembered first hearing ‘impact’ used as a verb at a conference on bulimia back in 1988, in Anaheim California, at the Knutts Berry Farm conference centre and theme park. The drug company Sirrius was handing out rollerball pen/lights at the end of the LogJam fun ride; to obtain a pen/light one was obliged to take the ride, which wound its way past Tayberry Thicket to Gooseberry Gulch, etc. This Dr. Ed had grimly yet determinedly done, in order that he might then have something to bring home to his wife. After 5 patience-trying minutes he and the 3 others in his ‘log’ were floating in the tepid, overly-chlorinated waters of Loch Loganberry, having been ‘swallowed’ down a ‘throat’ from the ‘delicious’ height of 40 feet or so atop Blueberry Thrill. While drifting briefly and unproductively in the lagoon and waiting to be—well, disgorged—he heard a fellow passenger seated behind him remark to his companion: ‘On the one hand, exhuming Iran-Contra is a definite non-starter; on the other, neutralising Iraq would impact positively on the President’s foreign policy credibility gap.’
‘To impact’ had even slipped (if this admission is not too too much of a strain on credibility) into Dr. Ed’s own usage. At meetings with the heads of other, less well-endowed departments he would hear himself employing the verb as part of a strategy of empathetic truth-evasion, uttering such harmless little fibs as: ‘Make no mistake: these funding claw-backs have impacted the functionality of everyone in this room; we’re all in this together, here.’ Similarly, ‘Your dosage has been ratcheted skywards in the past two months—how has this impacted your self-esteem?’ was something he might slip into standard doctor/patient chitchat, just to keep things up-close & ‘personal’. And just the other day in the staff lunchroom, he had tried ‘the Bengalis really impacted the Bears big-time, eh?’ (followed by ‘What was the final score? I had to dash to the can. . . .’), albeit unsuccessfully, on ‘the Guys’ from Emerg.
‘Do-able,’ (or—naturalizing it by dropping the hyphenation—‘doable’), however, was different. Whereas to his discriminating ears ‘to impact’ sounded ‘classy,’ ‘do-able’ sounded . . . well, ‘brassy.’ While ‘to impact’ communicated a certain, no-bull***t intelligence, ‘do-able’ smacked of philistinism = bad taste + new money, a nasal, leather-look arrogance, & etc. However, so far as Dr. Ed knew (which, admittedly, was not all that far, and extended only to a few members of his social circle, which was admittedly a small one) he was one of the first Canadians to document this neologism’s infestation of the continent.
Like so many other pesky nuisances (e.g. fire ants, killer bees, the career of George W. Bush), it had first arisen in Texas. He had first spotted it, again, at a conference, this one on the psychopharmacology of erectile dysfunction at Texas Christian University (home of the Horned Frogs). He’d linked up with a colleague from Med School days, who’d suggested a quick side-trip east to Tyler in his rented Cadillac Eldorado. The colleague was a running fanatic, and was entering the annual Tyler Rose Festival 10 kilometre footrace. He advised Dr. Ed to position himself at about ¼ mile from the finish line, so as to be ideally situated for the final sprint. This Dr. Ed did. The winner, from Kenya, took quite a bit less than half an hour to complete the course and claim his prizes ($5000 cash and a year’s supply of chicken-fried steak at Fat Man & Little Boy restaurants state-wide). His colleague had told Dr. Ed to look out for him ‘on or before the 40-minute mark,’ which would be for him a ‘PB’, or a ‘Personal Best.’ He made good on this prediction, and went by Dr. Ed at 38:12 by Dr. Ed’s watch, looking, in Dr. Ed’s estimation, fairly strong. Moments later, however, a tall, spindly-looking Texan in a headband and a 1970s adidas t-shirt (next to a bubba in a t-shirt that sported a marijuana leaf above a slogan which read: ‘Your TexAss is Grass’) struggled apoplectically by, and someone in the crowd shouted out at him: ‘40 minutes, Hal! Do-able, bud, do-able!’ One year later, Dr. Ed first heard its use back home, at University Hospital, in an elevator. It was sprinkled into a conversation between two gastroenterologists regarding a breakfast cereal company-sponsored study on the development of colo-rectal polyps. The plague had arrived.
* * *
Damnitall, something was surely up. Max, out with his wife, back later? The only do-able hypothesis was that his wife had taken Max with her out of some kind of sense of duty, on some kind of charity mission; and that Max had gone along for the ride, had gone along with her because he’d had to. The only possible reason for his Max and his wife to spend any time together was . . . an emergency! Something had to be wrong with Max! G-ddammit, his wife had taken Max to the vet’s, he knew it, he just knew it! Jesus Christ, why didn’t she call and tell him?