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Twenty years ago

Barry Smith

It was 20 years ago today.

Here’s what my life was like in July of 1994: I was 28 years old living in Basalt with two roommates. I was single and unemployed. O.J. Simpson had just attempted his slow-speed escape. Kurt Cobain had just killed himself.

Six months earlier I had been involved in a minor car accident. Some lateral jostling caused a few physical injuries — some whiplash and soft-tissue damage in my hip. After a short time I had healed up enough to return to my job as program director of KAJX, but once I got there I was incapable of pushing buttons in the correct order. (Back in the ’90s we still had to push buttons.) Physically I was feeling good, but something was suddenly askew in the old cognitive process.



I underwent a bunch of medical tests and the results came back positive — or negative, depending on how you look at it — and I was sent home. For good. With brain damage. I was deemed legally unfit for employment until further notice. So I spent my days at home, convalescing, hoping to get better.

My particular flavor of brain damage manifested in several ways, none of them horrific or sever, but cumulatively they made life challenging. My short-term memory was kaput. I would “wake up” in the grocery store or the living room or in completely different towns, car keys in hand, and have no idea how I got there. Hours would have passed since I remembered where I last was. I usually was wearing pants when I “woke up,” so there were some blessings to be counted, for sure.




Another side effect was having seriously mondo-bizarro dreams. I’d had weird dreams before, as most of us have, but these had a very different quality to them. Part of my treatment for the head injury involved weekly therapy. I’d chosen to see a Jungian therapist, because the person who’d sideswiped me had good insurance. My therapist had me writing down my crazy dreams so we could dissect them each week. In one session we discussed a dream I’d had about a toad. The therapist, after some pondering, concluded that the toad represented me. I was, in fact, that toad. The specifics are lost to time and torn synapses, but I remember thinking that he had a pretty good point.

I began keeping a journal of my experience. I wrote by hand at first, and then on a borrowed Macintosh SE. Because, get this, I didn’t own a computer. And neither did most of the people I knew. Sure, they may use a computer at work, but having your own computer at home? C’mon.

I called my journal “Healing Your Inner Toad.” I worked on it as often as my focus would allow. And focus was a real issue for me. At times it was so non-existent that I was unable to cook for myself. I’d turn on the stove and then forget about it. A lot. My roommates, who were also close friends, were growing weary of the sound of the smoke detector. Roommate Mark, current Carbondale beekeeper extraordinaire, began to cook for me each night and even make food for me to eat during the day while I was home alone. I’ve always been skinny, but I had dropped from my usual, trim 6 foot 4 inch, 170 pounds to 140 pounds, just because I wouldn’t always remember to eat. Mark was a lifesaver.

So concentration was at a premium, but I would have these windows of clarity that I’d use to do some writing. This was better than trying to cook. One nice feature of the old Mac SE is that it was very hard to burn the house down with it. I’d enjoyed writing ever since the crayon years, but had never made it a regular practice. I don’t think that what I was writing was good, but it sure was encouraging to be able to do something productive in my current state, and in retrospect I think it contributed to my brain’s eventual return to a workable state.

The O.J. Simpson preliminary hearing was getting underway and daytime TV was showing live gavel-to-gavel coverage. As an unemployed person with a couch and a TV, I was all over it. And man, it was riveting. Because writing had become part of my daily routine, I had a sudden flash of inspiration to write a funny letter to the editor about the O.J. trial. I ran to my computer, pausing only long enough to switch on a few stove burners, and started typing.

I faxed (yes, faxed) my completed letter in to the Aspen Daily News. I’d worked with the editor on a radio show, so we were kind of friends. He called me back (landline) and said that my letter was funny, and if I made it a bit longer he’d run it as a column.

What the? A column in the newspaper? Me? But I have brain damage. Besides, what do I know about writing a newspaper column? Well, I guess I do know one thing — the worst possible way to end a column is with the old “to be continued” gimmick.

To be continued …

Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays. This month marks his 20th year of writing “Irrelativity.” You’ll be hearing more about it in weeks to come.