Sunday, January 13, 2008


At the beginning of his stand-up comedy career, Steve Martin wanted to create an experience for the audience that simulated and reproduced the best of the high-school hilarity he remembered happening amongst his friends and classmates, the kind of aimless, endless nights where you would sit around your house with your buddies practically gagging with laughter, only to find yourself summing up the stories the next day at school to puzzled listeners with the words: "You had to be there."

In other words, the experience was so unique, the humor so situational, the mirth so transitory and of-the-moment, that later explanations were not only redundant and futile, but somehow offensive, too, as if attempting to replicate such an ephemeral moment in time insulted the nature of spontaneous fellowship itself.

How many times have we faithfully, heartfully tried to relate a joke, an anecdote, a special, sacred, almost revelatory moment from our lives (or, conversely, a supremely silly one) only to see the expression on our listener's face vainly attempt to show comprehension, if not interest? They're not getting it, we think.

"Well," you finally say, sighing. "I guess you just had to be there."

In some ways, such are the stories of our lives.

Moments that overwhelm you with their intensity often elicit bored yawns and vacant glares from friends and relatives. Emotions that assault you with their relevance and horror, insight or compassion, remain almost mute when vocalized, drained of their vigor.

Slowly I'm realizing that most of our lives are lived that way -- singularly. Not solitarily, exactly -- after all, I spent most of the past three months squeezed in between fellow commuters on Tokyo's subways -- but individually, amongst ourselves, leaving us and only us with the means by which to comprehend and assess their impact on ourselves and the world.

Perhaps this is sounding a little academic, or a trifle vague, but what I mean is: All around us every day are people experiencing the most joyful joy and the saddest sadness imaginable, as are we, in wildly varying degrees of pleasure and horror. "Only connect," E.M. Forster wrote a long time ago, but quite often, usually always, that's not as easy or as beneficial as one might expect. A 'connection' implies a link, a spark, a conduit through which your energy can find a receptive circuit. And yet the energy transferred will never be the same as that which was emitted; it will be shaped, charted and transfigured through the other person, until something new is born, and your original thoughts, your initial feelings, may become distorted. This distortion may not necessarily be a bad thing; it may very well result in a greater clarity, a higher caliber of energy, a stronger intensity of purpose and emotion, but still: you give up something of yourselves when letting go. (What you gain constitutes the sum of life.)

What I wish -- for me, for you, for all of us -- is a life of such wonder and incomprehension that any attempt to relate it to others is mandatorily reduced to a familiar catchphrase: "You had to be there." Because it is the 'you' in 'you had to be there' that ultimately reveals itself to be essential; it is the 'you' that keeps the circuit running, the energy moving, the gap between the singular and the communal narrow enough to cross as we see fit.

The common usage of the phrase means: "If you were there, at that time, in that place, you'd get what I'm telling you." Looked at another way, it can become almost a lament, or a plea, because what you are doing is trying in such a futile manner to convey that which cannot be conveyed, and, in a sense, you want the listener to have been a part of it, a co-pilot, to share what you saw and felt what you felt. The experience alone wasn't enough; you need another party to validate that which transpired.

"You had to be there" becomes almost mournful, seen in that light, but a good mourning, if such a state exists, a grieving for a singular experience that should have been communal, that should have been shared. With you. You want to say: "I'm trying to tell you about something that changed me in such a potent way, but you're not getting it, and that's fine, that's cool, no problem, but if you had been there, you would now understand what I'm talking about, and we would have shared something, and that something would have lingered through our lives."

By saying ' you had to be there' I'm acknowledging that I've failed at my original intention -- to let you in on a marvelous moment of mirth or oddness -- but I've hinted at something larger, more inclusive: my desire for you, the person in front of me, to have been a part of my life in the recent past. To have shared something solitary, thus multiplying the both of us. You weren't there, not at that moment, but the hope is that in the future there will be other times, and you will be there, and though we will, as always, be experiencing something singular, it will, this time, be mutual, too.