September 1999
s m u g
by Todd Levin



As a small child, I suffered from a recurring nightmare. It usually came to me shortly after being tucked into my bed by my deformed au pair, Gregor. (His named was pronounced like "Gregory" but, tragically, Gregor lost the "y", along with his right thumb, most of his right finger, and a good deal of the flesh on the right side of his face because of a gross misunderstanding. He mistook a puddle of corrosive acid that had collected beneath a cargo van for a magical "licking pool", like the ones his Mother crowed about in bedtime stories.) Gregor would snuff the lights and, within 10 or fifteen minutes, the worms in my brain would begin to crawl, stirring my terror. I would often tangle myself up in the pile of metal shavings I called my bed as my mind tortured itself with the same terrible possibility night after night.

In the dream, I am in a coffin, dead and buried -- but I am completely conscious of the passage of time. I am aware that the world is changing, slowly, but I cannot conceive of what those changes are or how they are affecting the living. I am aware of time's march but I am also aware that I am dead and have no facility to make my presence known or change my fate. This knowledge passes for a troubling eternity. And, to make the horror more real, in the dream a couple of gravediggers gather over my grave each day to discuss that morning's "Snuffy Smith" comic strip. They choke out smoky, toothless laughs as they recreate the three-panel story for each other. But, since they've both read the strip (joining the billions of newspaper readers who surely did the same), they never bother to relate the punchline and I am left wanting, rigid with frustration (and rigor mortis).

I would invariably jolt myself awake from the nightmare and crawl into bed with my parents or run to the stable where Gregor slept and embrace him desperately, crying hot, salty tears into the warm cavity of his face.

The only thing scarier than being alive is being dead. Actually, to be truthful, the only thing scarier than being alive is being almost-dead. People absolutely love reminding you that statistically more people are afraid of public speaking than death. That statistic is probably true (which is an excellent quality for a statistic) but misleading. Yes, most people are not really scared of death. Death is easy; there's very little work involved and you are usually not there for it. But being almost-dead is something else entirely. It's tough work. And it's not easy to nail statistically because, while being almost-dead is a fear that sits coiled dangerously in the back of everyone's brain, it is also a fear that we usually give very specific and imaginative consideration.

Somewhere in that statistical ranking of human phobias you will likely find a few areas of agreement on specific phobias related to being almost-dead: fear of flying, fear of being shot, fear of being stabbed, fear of being shot with a gun that fires tiny steak knives. They're all the same thing from a distance, but different up close. (Even a "buried alive" phobia -- a pretty common one, I think -- is likely to have some variance in particulars from person to person) Like snowflakes, our fears of being almost-dead are all wonderfully unique and multi-faceted.

People obsess on their almost-deaths with a kind of creative passion and attention to detail that could be better applied to their plans for living. And why shouldn't they? But most people honestly don't have the luxury of preparing for their almost-deaths. It's probably the most anticipated event in each our lives and the most difficult to really plan properly. This is why it scares us so deeply. None of want to end up like my uncle Marcel, who unexpectedly fell fourteen floors from a scaffolding (he was just trying to order a sandwich) and whose body was identifiable only by his "Bald Men Get More Head" T-shirt. (It was a very difficult day for my aunt, but not nearly as difficult as following his wishes to have his tombstone stickered with a sign that read "How's My Corpse Smell? Dial 1-800-EAT-SH#T". My uncle had a soft spot for a well-turned phrase.)

I don't have the nightmare anymore, thankfully. I have come to recognize it as a nothing more than a textbook existential fear, of living through dying and the infinite number of anxieties that would necessarily accompany that last moment of pained consciousness. Asking questions that could plague one's soul forever: Did I lead a good life? What happens next? Will I got to heaven or hell, or will I become a zombie? And will I become a really important zombie, or just one of those background zombies that gets shot in the head before it gets a chance to eat any human brains? Heady stuff for a seven year-old who spent most of his waking hours rooting for truffles.

But how do you truly extricate yourself from a crippling fear like being almost-dead and make room for the really important phobias, like public speaking and the elderly? Do what I did: imagine the most preposterously improbable scenarios for your own death and fixate on them. Then be sure to tell others, with complete sincerity, that you fear dying under these exact circumstances. Everyone will constantly assure you that you will never die under that proposition and you will soon find yourself lulled comfortably into a false sense of confidence through the opinions of your peers. It is just this kind of homespun self-therapy that helped me get over the nightmares and get over the lingering fear of being almost-dead. But it hasn't stopped me from hitting the dirt whenever I see a school bus full of Ulysses S. Grant look-alikes barrel uncontrollably down my street. I'm reformed but I'm still not about to tempt fate.




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