The Blue

Mike Nagel

I don’t know how to meditate but I am very good at sitting in one place and not getting anything done so I like to think I’m a natural. I’ve been trying to meditate, if there is such thing as trying to meditate, in different places around my apartment. The living room is one place. The closet is another. I’ve heard that if you get really good you can move in and out of a meditative state instantaneously, on command. While you’re walking down the street, for example. Or while you’re stuck in traffic. It sounds dangerous. But the heart wants what it wants.

What my heart wants is to not be a big jiggly ball of worries all the time. There’s so much to worry about it’s hard to choose. On Saturday morning every single person in the Hawaiian Island’s got a text message warning them about an incoming ballistic missile. False alarm. But the damage had been done. Now we know they have that text message in the system, ready to go. 

I didn’t look up any instructions on how to meditate. I didn’t watch a YouTube video or find a Wikihow article or anything. I just sat in the closet for a while and hoped I’d figure it out. The only things I really know are the things I’ve taught myself. I forget everything else.

Andrew called last month. Out of the blue, as they say. I ignored the call, of course. We hadn’t talked in six years. What could we possibly have to talk about now? I called him back the next day and we talked for thirty-five minutes. Before we hung up, he said, “I assume you’ll be going to the service tomorrow?” I guess our friend’s wife had died and I hadn’t been on Facebook so I missed the announcement. That’s why Andrew called. He thought I knew. 

The next day my wife and I went to the funeral. It was in Garland, which isn’t far from my apartment in Dallas. It was weird that the funeral was in Garland, though, because I’d met this friend on a hospital ship in Liberia. Then he went to Washington or some place to learn how to fix propeller planes, which is how he met his wife, who happened to be from Garland, near my apartment. And now here we were, ten years later, in Garland, burying her in the ground behind the Laundromat. She was twenty-nine. I thought: The only thing worse than turning thirty is not turning thirty. After the service I turned to talk to a friend for a second—she had a new baby daughter in her arms—and when I turned back around the casket was already in the ground. Some guy in cargo shorts was using a Bobcat bulldozer to lower a concrete slab down on top of it. I don’t know why that bothered me. I guess I just thought it would all take a little bit longer was all.

I don’t know where this BLUE is that things keep coming at us from all of a sudden but I don’t like it. There’s us, I guess, and there are the things that we expect to happen to us, and anything outside of that, anything else, which is practically everything else, that’s the blue. There is us and there is what we imagine for ourselves and then there is the blue.

***

Leukemia at 29: That’s the blue. 

A panic attack in the middle of the night: That’s the blue.

Incoming ballistic missiles: Those were launched from the blue.

***

It’s almost all the blue. There is very little out there that isn’t the blue. Even us. Sometimes we’re the blue too.

***

To help keep the blood flowing through my body I’ve been going on walks in the afternoon, over the new suspension bridge the city built over Mockingbird Lane. There’s a park on the other side called Glencoe Park where middle-aged men throw tennis balls for their dogs. They use this tennis ball throwing-device that’s basically just a long blue plastic stick. It has a scoop on the end. I guess it gives you some extra leverage because these guys can fling those tennis balls a hundred yards, I swear to God. I like to sit on one of the benches and watch for a while. One of the really nice things in life is watching a dog run as fast as it can. The other day I found two National Geographic magazines on the bench where I usually sit and watch the dogs run. One cover said: “The Search for Happiness.” And the other cover said: “The Hunt for the Real Jesus.” I looked around and thought, is someone trying to tell me something?

Anyway. Everyone knows it’s pointless to try to be happy. Happiness only ever happens on accident—OUT OF THE BLUE!—while you’re busy doing other things. So the real trick, it seems, to being happy, is to keep yourself busy doing other things. It would be nice, though, sometimes at least, to be happy for absolutely no reason. But now I think we’re talking about chemistry.

I have no idea how anyone manages their life. I just walk around all day being impressed with everyone. The SMU students in Starbucks who have apparently managed to fill out all the necessary paperwork to spend another semester studying whatever it is that they’re interested in studying. The forty-year-old ticket taker at the Angelica who has figured out a way to get by on what can’t possibly be more than $10 an hour. The fifty-year-old man in the flower department at Kroger who takes such pride in the arrangement of the roses and the daisies and the azaleas. They’re all spectacular, every last one of them. Bright shining examples humankind’s truly heroic ability to JUST KEEP ON DOING STUFF no matter how pointless it is or how much of a hassle it turns out to be.

“I am anaphylactically averse to hassle,” I tell my wife, J, the other night, lying in bed, unable to leave the bed like some character in The Exterminating Angel.

Later that night, as a result of drinking too much vodka, I think, I had what I believed to be a panic attack. I laid there thinking that my blood was going to stop suddenly, thinking that I should go back into advertising and make a little bit of money, thinking that I should swallow a bottle of Tylenol and see what happens. I thought those thoughts. And then I thought some other ones. Sometimes I think thoughts just to try them out in my head. See how they feel. See if I’m really capable of thinking such terrible things, like punching a baby or spilling hot coffee on an old woman. I think, Am I really thinking this right now? Is this thought real?

One thing you learn from trying to meditate is that everything is pretty much only ever happening in your head. Or like Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik said in their Scientific American article, an article I found a few months ago after Googling the phrase “Is seeing believing?”: “It is a fact of neuroscience that everything we experience is a figment of our imagination.” 

For a while I was running long distances. I imagined myself to be a long-distance runner. I ran on a treadmill because I didn’t want to think about curbs or people or getting run over by a Mack Truck. I didn’t want to think about anything. After a while I realized that was the whole point, not thinking. It was, I think, a kind of meditation. I’d listen to The National and sweat until my t-shirt was heavy with it. My body felt so efficient then, like it was having no trouble moving my blood around, no trouble at all, all one and a half gallons of it. It’s good to run as far as you can sometimes, just to see how far those legs of yours can take you. Just in case you ever need to outrun something. You can out run a lot of things. You can outrun a ballistic missile if you’re serious about it. Maybe, if you trained long enough and hard enough, like a real PRO ATHLETE or something, maybe you could learn to outrun the blue.

One thing I like to do sometimes is take my glasses off very slowly and rub my hands all over my face like a man who’s got a lot on his mind. The things I worry about never happen. So I keep worrying about them, as a way of saving the world.

After a month of trying to meditate I felt a small buzzing in the base of my skull. A little popping electrostatic ball. So it seems that trying to meditate and meditating are the exact same thing and that happiness is a form of electrochemistry.

A few days ago I went to the downtown Dallas public library to find books about inoculation because I’d become fascinated by the idea that a little something bad for you is actually something good for you. But instead what I found were a bunch of books about alcoholism because most of the time a little something bad for you just gets worse and worse and worse. One of the books was called, “Natural Rest for Addiction: A Radical Approach to Recovery through Meditation.” I thought, Is there any problem in the world that can’t be solved with a little ZONING OUT? Whatever your problem is, the answer is simple: just stop thinking about it.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we could just stop thinking. But there I go imagining things again.

The problem is that there are so many ways of not thinking. So many ways of ZONING OUT. I can think of three off the top of my head. You can buy them at the store. “Do you think you have a drinking problem yet?” J asks holding up another empty bottle of vodka she found in the kitchen trashcan. I say, “Absolutely not. I have no problem drinking whatsoever.” You can zone out however you want to. You can have a sense of humor about it. But fair warning: zones are tricky places. It can be very hard, once you’ve zoned out, to find a way of zoning back in again.

I knew a man who lived in a zone. He sat next to me in Starbucks every morning while I typed up my notes. A real American alcoholic, that guy. He drank his booze out of a 7-Eleven cup. His jacket was long and blue and made out of wool like a sea captain’s jacket. So I wondered if maybe he was a sea captain. A man from the blue. But how, I wanted to know, have you wandered so far from the sea? 

Don’t worry, I imagined him saying, lifting up his BIG GULP cup. I brought the sea with me.

So it is imagined. So it is.

***

It took us awhile to figure out that a little something bad for us is actually something good for us. That wasn’t exactly OBVIOUS. In 13th century China, people snorted dried, crushed up small pox scabs as a kind of inoculation. That seemed to do the trick. What didn’t kill us really did make us stronger. Later, in 18th century France, Voltaire wrote about Circassian women who had, “from time immemorial, communicated the small-pox to their children by making an incision in the arm, and by putting into this incision a pustule…” I love that: that a disease can be communicated, that time can exist beyond memory, but mostly that we can be saved from something by that thing itself: that sometimes our enemy and our savior are the same.

Or like La Rochefoucauld, maybe: “Our virtues are, most often, only vices in disguise.” But what I’ve been wondering lately is whether or not that works both ways.

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Mike Nagel’s work has appeared in The Awl, apt, Hobart, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, and the Paris Review Daily. His essay ‘Beached Whales’ was a Best American Essays 2017 notable essay. Read more at michaelscottnagel.com.