The question you all have, the question preeminent on everyone's mind in this room today is whether or not you will make it. So let me cut to the chase. You will not make it. No one will make it. Not a single one of you. But you will forget I said that. You will go out there and try to make it and you will fail repeatedly but from time to time, at your lowest points, in your most subterranean moments, you will hearken back, not think back, note, but hearken, I choose my words with precision, you will hearken back and remember my words, and although they don't seem comforting right now, in fact, diametrically opposite to anything you'd consider comforting, you will find them comforting then. Of this I can assure you without equivocation. Or with some equivocating. Or. Well. No matter.
I went to the doctor not long ago and I said "Doctor. I've been chasing this pain around my body for the last six months. First it's one place and then it pulls up stakes and makes its home for a few days in another. I'm reaching, feeling, palpitating all around me like a man looking for matches. This roving pain is making a fool of me. I suspect a wandering cancer, a hobo tumor, a peek-a-boo malignancy. Am I nuts or what? Is there any such thing as a wandering cancer?"
He says, "If you leave me with just the two options, then you're nuts. Of course there's no such thing. A hobo cancer? That's plain nonsense. Where'd you read that? On the internet?"
"No sir," I says, "I theorized such on my own. I diagnosed it myself."
"A man who diagnoses himself has a fool for a doctor, to paraphrase the monopolistic maxim of another crooked profession. What you have is an imaginary terminal malignancy."
"Oh," I said, feeling greatly relieved. "Then it's nothing at all and the nothing's all in my head."
"I didn't say it's nothing. Did you hear the word 'nothing' in what I said? It is indeed not nothing. Quite the opposite; it's something."
"But nothing serious, I take it?"
"Serious? It depends on how you define serious. It's incurable, that I can tell you. It will kill you in the end. It kills everyone in the end. If this is something you take seriously then it's left to you to answer the question: Is it serious enough for you?"
Of course I'm speaking in metaphors, which has to do with ships, which is where they get the word semaphore from, its derivation, as they say. My story is a metaphor. A way to sail to Bangkok, or some other distant land of mystery and allure. Do you know the Theseus ship paradox—a very famous philosophical puzzle, not solved to this very moment. It goes like this: if, over the years, the Greeks replaced, oar by oar and board by board, every singe piece of wood on Theseus's ship in order to preserve it, and they do this until every oar, every board, every rope, stitch and hawser, every sail is replaced, at what point does it stop being the original ship? Or is it still the original ship? Puts me somewhat in mind of God and the Devil making that wager up there in Heaven before the action kicks off in the Book of Job. Have you read your Job? Great book. Cop out ending. All a semaphore. That's the connection, if you're wondering. We're all just lost ships at sea. But at what point do we stop being the original ship? That's the question. I'm waiting for the movie.
But consider this, my friend, in the meantime, if you would. What if God purposely left a piece of the puzzle out. I'm skipping ahead a bit here, I've put myself in mind of something I'll mention in passing later, and that is the puzzle, specifically the left out piece, and maybe that's the devil's doing. What if the devil said to God, "leave out a piece of the puzzle and I'll bet you entrance back into paradise it drives them all crazy and the only ones who don't curse your name and renounce you are the craziest ones of all," and now I ask you to look at the world today and tell me, my friends, was the devil right or what, did he win that bet, is he back in heaven even as we—well, even as I—speak. You tell me. Or better yet, you tell yourselves.
Here is an observable fact: You can make yourself dizzy watching a cat walk across the floor. If you watch it closely, really closely—the cat, that is—you can provoke in yourself a first-class existential crisis of the Satrean order. Watch it closely and you will see the cat as if it were the first time anyone has seen a cat. The lazy, predatory shift of those sharp shoulder bones, the muscles rippling along the lean flanks, the tensile tail, the electric whiskers, the absolute silence of the creature—it can set you falling into the abyss like Lucifer from heaven. Let the scales fall from your eyes. The closer you look the harder it is to see a thing. You look closer and closer and you can't quite believe what's before your very eyes. The cat doesn't seem real, can't be real, and yet there it is. It's as if you can see right through it, behind it, and still, if you pull back a little bit, there it is again, stuck onto reality like a transparency. Who ever thought of such a thing as a cat? It's beyond your imagining. But if not you, then who? It's a rude awakening, like bumping against a table leg in the dark. You feel unbalanced, as if the room is spinning. Maybe the room really is spinning. Think of the earth—it's spinning. You grab the table to steady yourself, to root yourself, to hold onto something real, unquestionable and to that end you look quickly and with desperation toward the pepper mill. Some pedestrian, ordinary object. No good. The grain in the wood of the table. Bad. The person sitting across from you. Worse still. Your own hand. Worst of all! None of it seems real. This is the beginning of a terrible, nausea-inducing anxiety. You consider a brain tumor, perhaps. There's your hobo cancer setting up camp again, lighting a fire in the dark woods of your breast, singing the old freight car songs, there's your imaginary terminal malignancy, my friends. Boo-ha!
I don't want to depress you folks. No sir. There's enough of that to go around. I ask myself, I say: "Bill. What the hell do you want to go around depressing people for, to what end or purpose? If they're happy with their woodworking or their grandchildren or whatever it is, putting together their five-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle of the Grand Canyon on the coffee-table, why not leave them to it, why take that away from them even before they realize a piece is missing? You are like someone with a bad social disease purposely spreading it to others through a kiss, some otherwise friendly-seeming gesture they've learned to trust. That's an evil thing to do, Bill. You are sneakily dropping the worm of discord and doubt into their beverage of choice. That's pretty satanic of you. In fact, that may very well be the definition of "evil incarnate." I don't know who's the one saying this fine-sounding speech to me. It sounds like something a wife would say, except I don't have a wife, not either one of them anymore, and friends are scarce these days, you learn who your friends really are in times like these. My kitchen is empty when I have this conversation. Empty of everything but the unreal things I mentioned earlier. Cat included.
She's right, you know. I've come to think of that voice in my head as a "she," for whatever Jungian reasons, but just as likely it's habit, the ex-wives you understand, they'll walk out the door, but never out of your skull. The cure, it's worse than the disease, the imaginary terminal malignancy or whatever you'd prefer to call it. The metaphor that's supposed to carry us across the water, to take us from here to there has sprung a leak. Theseus's ship. It's not seaworthy my friend. I'm here to tell you that. I'm sinking. Soon I'll be drowning, but not yet, the water's only up to my knees. But it's rising, my friend, it's rising, slow and steady. I know it looks like I'm just flailing around up here on the poop deck, slapping at myself like I've got fleas, but I'm signaling to you right now, I'm semaphoring over the briny chop. Does it mean anything to you? Can you even see me, my friends? Friends? Who am I referring to? You find out who your true friends are at times like these. There's hope on the horizon. There's always that, so long as the horizon can never be reached. There's hope, friends, rescue, something. But I think I need a stronger spyglass.
Let's break ten minutes for coffee.