Thursday, July 3, 2014

Catastrophizing in a bad shirt.

Catastrophize (v.) is not yet in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, but it will be. It means using one's sick imagination to construct a fantasy of enormous peril and disaster from a few commonplace facts. It may be used to global effect---"The temperature has gone up twenty degrees since breakfast! At this rate, by Sunday night we'll all be FRIED!"---but its best, purest form is the prediction of personal catastrophe from things no one else would take seriously.

The construction of simple, seemingly logical, but utterly absurd steps is the preferred method. For example:

1. I was twenty bucks off when I balanced the checkbook.

2. I probably bounced the mortgage check.

3. My credit rating will be in the crapper!

4. I will lose the house!

5. I will wind up in a box under a bridge!

6. I will get murdered in a hobo camp, and my mother will never hear of my tragic end!

There would normally be some intermediary steps, but you get the idea. You may even be a master of the form, like moi.

I had a good one the other day. I wore a shirt into town that I thought was a pretty good summertime shirt. Maybe not the prettiest shirt I've ever owned. Yes, I bought it on clearance, but that's beside the point.


I'd worn it a few times in the spring and thought it would be good for a summer's day.

Wrong! Not a good shirt for one of Manhattan's hot, humid, soupy days. I felt like a stewed clam. Suddenly the snappy shirt was a bit more clingy on me than I'd like. When I say clingy, I meant it stuck to me like the skin on a grape.

Now, I am not a candidate for My 600-Lb. Life, but I'm not an ad for Crunch gyms, either. I'm just a guy you'd rather see covered up, is all. Like most people.

So it's hot and I have an unflattering shirt on; I'm on the streets of Manhattan with a few strangers about. What's the big deal? How can that be catastrophized?

Let me show you how it's done, kid.

1. I'm not seen by anyone I know, but struggling poet Clarabelle Luftkopf sees me go dragging by. She is horrified by the sight and goes running for her pen and paper.

2. The New Yorker publishes "Fat Guy in a Bad Shirt," beginning Clarabelle's meteoric rise. I see the poem and realize it's me, and suffer a torment of shame.

[Excerpt from "Fat Guy in a Bad Shirt"]

Fat guy
In a bad shirt
A shirt, a skin, a skin of horror---
Horror by the yard---
A bolt to make you bolt.
 
Stewed in his own gravy;
White and hot
(Not hot in a good way;
Hot like Kentucky-fried Moby-Dick;
Call out the navy!)
Squishing along on Broadway
On the hunt for a cruller stick,
The White Beast and
The Ate White Weigh.
 
Variant vast varmint
Of ventricles and veins
Viewed---
A panorama of pancakes
A pandemic of pudge
Eat the world
And call it fudge.

Call him fat
But do not call him late
For lunch.

I have become a symbol of all that is gross and wrong. Thank God no one knows who it was.

3. Decades on, "Fat Guy" is specifically cited by the Nobel Committee when it hands Clarabelle the literature award. Children learn the poem in school; drama majors recite it in college. The poem is seen everywhere, accompanied by a color sketch (by the author) of the shirt. It is quite accurate.

4. One enterprising reporter, Julio Culata, discovers the exact date, time, and place Clarabelle spotted me, because she had noted it in her diary. Using old NYPD security camera records, Julio actually uncovers an unusually good still from that long-past date of the fat guy made famous by the poet, in his horrible shirt. Reeling with disgust, Culata publishes the picture, which is seen around the world by noon, ruining lunches everywhere. People I worked with at the time sit up and take notice, trying to draw memories from the well about ol' Whatshisname. I see the picture on the Internet; I lock the doors and cover the windows.

5. Culata gets a tip and tracks me down at the Happydale Mediocrity Home for Obscure Writers, enters with his camera crew disguised as grouchy nurses, and conducts an assault interview that leaves me in tears, apologizing for the world for being a symbol of misery and oppression to it.

Now THAT, my friend, is some first-class catastrophizing.
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