Two weeks before Christmas last year, Dr. Kristen Neff stood in front of an audience at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. She was, in the words of the MC, a “very, very special guest” speaking on a “very, very interesting topic”—namely, compassion. Not just any sort of compassion, mind you, and certainly not the old-fashioned sort defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” She was there to talk about her compassion for herself.
I’ve never been one for existentialism (except the kind on prom night), but when I stumbled across myself in a 2013 thriller novel, a lot of hard questions popped into my head.
Am I a real person? Is this real life? Am I just a figment of author John Gilstrap’s imagination? I’m not really sure anymore. (Can you guess I just finished binge-watching Westworld?)
It all began when I was writing an email to a company whose products I was hoping to review. I wanted to get a free sample of some of their goods (since that’s the one truly great perk of writing for a living). To do that, of course, it’s best to prove to the company that you do, in fact, write for a living.
FREDERICKSBURG, Va.—I don’t know if it’s just the neat patriotic lights or the hypnotically relaxing yellow floral pattern on the carpet or the kindness and decency of everyone here in the audience with me, but this cover band trio sounds pretty good. They are doing “To Love Somebody,” that immortal baroque pop classic from the first Bee Gees album in an all-acoustic arrangement. When I try to figure out what the band’s name is, someone tells me that it’s “Ask Fred” and that they usually play R&B. It’s easy to imagine the front-woman easing her way into “The Dark End of the Street” and the bearded guy behind her laying down a mellow groove on a vintage Hammond organ.
BALTIMORE, Md.—It was a brisk two miles from Baltimore’s Penn Station to Zissimo’s, the neighborhood bar hosting a two-hour comedy special in honor of Hillary Clinton. Google informed me that a taxi would cover the distance in seven minutes, putting me at the bar at 7:35 p.m. or so, with plenty of time to stand awkwardly before curtain, whereas walking would take 45 minutes, putting me at the bar a few minutes after the performance started at 8 p.m. I struck out into the wild on foot, having convinced myself a brisk walk would do a world of good—put color into the old cheeks, and revive body and spirit with the healthful fall air of downtown Baltimore.
KING OF PRUSSIA, Penn.—I can’t see anything. Not because I have a fever that I will later learn is around 102 degrees as well as a headache and not because I can hardly tell if I am awake or having another of the terribly vivid shivering dreams that kept me awake last night. I am sitting in a hallway outside the ballroom where Donald Trump and Mike Pence and about 50 different GOP hangers-on will be speaking in a strip-mall city 30 minutes north of Philadelphia. There is not even a video monitor, and we are not allowed to walk into the ballroom and mingle. Instead I am here to listen to this very important invitation-only campaign event.
NEW YORK, N.Y.—The history of Stoic philosophy is an education in the school of hard knocks. Stoicism’s founder, Zeno of Citium, discovered philosophy after being shipwrecked on a voyage to Peiraeus. Its most eminent statesman, the philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, spent his life in military camps far from home warding off threats to the Roman Empire. Its most impressive philosopher, Epictetus, was a crippled slave.
Five minutes in a stationary car on the corner of Constitution and 12th Street is okay, I guess. Seven is pretty tedious. When we had been in the left-hand turn lane for a quarter of an hour without moving, I thanked the driver and kissed the passenger in the back seat (my wife and daughter, respectively), jumped into traffic, and walked the remaining third of a mile to Trump International Hotel, where I was supposed to be meeting two colleagues to cover the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony.
LAS VEGAS—I don’t know what I will be doing with my time four years from now. Maybe I’ll be in a house on the shore of Lake Superior writing a book that will sell modestly but receive glowing reviews. Maybe I will be playing pedal steel in a country-rock band. Maybe my family will move to Kenya. It is hard to say. Whatever it is, I hope it doesn’t include standing awkwardly in a loud and crowded room trying to ask people I dislike questions I know they can’t answer.
LAS VEGAS—The best thing about the third and final—that has a nice ring to it, right?—presidential debate was the free beer garden sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, which, as far as I am aware, remains open even as I write this. My flight was late and I didn’t have time to check in at my hotel and get something to eat before I picked up my media credential. All I expected was an overpriced hamburger stand. Instead I got beef brisket, some chicken, potatoes, green beans, cornbread, coffee, and five Budweisers. When I walked over to the bar I couldn’t believe my luck.