Tuesday, May 11, 2010

At least we’re never alone

We all watched cartoons as a kid. One common scene is when a character, facing a moral decision, hears conflicting advice from two little floating companions that look like him (females have no such conflicts) but with distinct differences. One has wings and a halo; the other, horns and a pitchfork. We’ve never forgotten those critters because we have, in real life, our own individual twosomes telling us what we should or shouldn’t do. They follow us everywhere. And they never, ever shut up.

Oh, if life were only as easy as that these days. To follow the right path, you had to just listen to what the angel said and tell the devil, well, to go to hell. What’s hard about that?

But the little angel and devil, you see, are no longer alone.

Take the first little critter. Though floating in the air like the others, he’s shuffling his feet. He’s looking at his watch and furtively glancing at the nearest doorway. He exhales through his nostrils like a bull preparing to charge. Somewhere, anywhere.

His name is Agita.

Agita doesn’t tell you what’s right or wrong. Strict rules of the International Critter Union—the acronym is no accident—keep jobs from overlapping. His job is to whisper in your ear, whenever you’re in a hurry, what will raise your blood pressure the highest. He asks little questions like, “Aren’t you leaving a bit late for work?” Answer yes to a question like this at your peril, because the follow-up comes next: “Didn’t you mean to buy gas on the way in? Didn’t you need to stop at the ATM?”

He uses both the angel’s and devil’s words for his own ends. The angel’s: “Sure, pick up the check, big spender. You can tell the family you’re vacationing on Staten Island this year.” And the devil’s: “Yeah, find a reason to hit the men’s room just as the waiter comes with the check…but every wife at the table will notice.”

If you’re not in a hurry? You will be. That bill you have to pay. That email you have to write. That repairman you need to call. You might, in a moment of clarity, decide no…no! I don’t want to get to work frazzled by doing everything that occurred to me before I left. Those things can wait till tonight!

You might get away with it, too, except for another critter: Agita’s companion-in-arms, Gotta.

Gotta wears a bow tie and, though he resembles his host, has twisted his version of your face into a sniveling expression. He isn’t there to tempt or to make you worry over things you really ought to do. Because to Gotta, there are no two ways about it. He stands and stares, arms crossed, blows a whistle and recites from his clipboard everything that’s your job to do. What’s on it? Everything. Take that computer you’re probably looking into at this very moment. Gotta’s list is long: Anti-virus, anti-otherbadstuff. Software and driver updates. New printers, mice, keyboards. Printer ink and paper, too. You need to back up your data and, every now and then, delete those emails with big, fat photos that fill up the hard disk. You think your computer works for you? According to Gotta, it’s the other way around.

The way Gotta sees you, it’s all just duty. But he has a way of turning everything around, if you let him, to take all enjoyment out of everything you do. Plant a garden? “It needs weeding, dead-heating, and fertilizing.” Take a walk in the park on a nice, sunny day? “You need sunscreen and mosquito repellent!” Stay home, make a nice cappuccino and read the paper? There…what could get in the way of that? Nothing, except that your most talkative friend’s own Agita tells her that she really ought to call you—at the very moment you sit down and bring the cup close enough to your lips to smell the cinnamon.

Besides, relaxing is really no option when all of them—well-meaning as the angel is—work on you at the same time. The din can be deafening:

• “Why don’t you go clear the snow from your neighbor’s driveway? He’s getting too old for this.”
• “What, the same fine fellow who complains if you don’t get to mow often enough for him? He can hire out like anyone else!”
• “If you don’t spend every available minute to make your own driveway perfect, the mailman will fall on his butt and sue yours.”
• “You’ve got another hour’s worth of chores indoors after you finish this alone, and it’s almost 11 p.m.!”

I don’t know what it says about 21st-century life that it’s the little devil who seems to have gotten reinforcements. I’m also wondering about another friend of Agita and Gotta.

I only notice this one while I’m at work. It has a constant cigarette, rolled-up sleeves and a raspy voice with a short but devastating repertoire: “You call this writing? You call that writing?”

I suspect that anyone who makes a living as a writer knows this one, who combines the worst qualities of Agita and Gotta, union regs be damned.

If you do any writing whatsoever, no matter what the job, you might even have met Edita yourself.


  1. Ain't it the truth! And there are more besides.

  2. There sure are, "Ano"! I'm sure we all have our own personal mixes of a large crowd!