As a Ph.D student in physics, I went to a collaboration meeting in Boulder, Colorado in the U.S.A., and took an extra week off for driving around the neighbouring states: Colorado, Utah, Arizona,… I had rented a car which, like most American cars, had an automatic transmission which made it much easier to drive for hours on end without getting tired. At least, without getting tired of driving. I did get tired of the radio stations which in those places only played country music and sermons. In the end, in Flagstaff, Arizona, I bought two tapes, one of Bo Diddley and one of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and listened to those instead. Much better. And of course, if I say “Flagstaff Arizona”, Chuck Berry fans will already have thought of route 66, which indeed I drove on for a few miles although it is not really used as a main road anymore. Other things I remember: a Navajo guide in Monument Valley who asked me, being a physicist, to drop a nuclear bomb on Washington, bookstores that served tea, music shops that sold guns, and a tacky dancing where a married wife tried to hit on me but got stopped by her brother-in-law, and endless roads, endless roads, just like in the movies. And, of course, I remember Las Vegas.
I am not a great talker. I don’t really enjoy it. And I don’t see why people would make the talking process take longer than strictly necessary. Why say: ‘Yes, I agree with you’ if you can just as well say: ‘yes’? Or – indeed – why say anything at all, if you agree anyway? As you can imagine, meetings at work are a torture to me, telephone calls are life threatning and my choice to live in Spain (a country that lives for two things only: eating and speaking, preferably at the same time) was, in this respect, maybe not well thought through.
However, the problem existed also in the Netherlands, and to show it’s not only a matter of being a grumpy old man, it existed as well when I was young.
I was about 14 years old and I was invited to the home of a friend. Actually, we were not really very good friends, and I am not sure we even liked each other much, but anyway, we were class mates and I was at his place, in his room. We were playing some very complicated board game, involving dice, ships and special bonus cards and it was my turn. I was thinking very hard about what was going on and then his mother came in with tea. She said: ‘hi’, and I answered: ‘hi’, and she said: ‘I have brought tea’ and we both said: ‘thank you’, and then I went back to the game, trying to figure out the rules and what I was supposed to do. Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, she kept on talking but I did not pay attention. Only when suddenly there fell a silence I looked up and saw on their faces that some kind of answer was expected from me. My thoughts were still elsewhere and I said: ‘Yes, goodbye’ and turned back to that bloody game again.
It was the embarrassed laugh of my class mate that told me that I had done something wrong. I looked up, suddenly blushing heavily but it was already too late. ‘Yes, goodbye!’ his mother snapped back and then went out of the room, closing the door with an exclamation mark. Unable to think of ways to fix the situation (apologize, jump out of the window) I just pretended it hadn’t happened and we went on playing the game.
I don’t remember how I got out of the house. If it hadn’t been on the 4th floor, I would have sworn I did jump out of the window.
I am a nervous guy. I can’t just leave things half undone. When a book is not quite aligned on the coffeetable, I first have to put it right, before I can watch my favorite film on the video (or listen to my favorite song of my favorite band). To take my time and relax instead of fixing something right away, is a difficult thing for me to do.
One morning I was having a long, hot shower in my bathroom which was big and without windows, so that all the steam stayed inside it, creating quite a sauna effect. It was probably this heat and humidity which caused the light bulb to suddenly explode. Shards of glass flew all around and landed on the floor. I quickly switched off the water and opened the bathroom door to let in some light. That’s when I saw that, strangely enough, parts of the bulb and the complete cap and electrical contact of the bulb had remained still screwed into the electrical socket.
‘Well, let’s first take that out,’ I thought without thinking or taking time to dry myself. So, naked and wet, I stood up on my toes, stuck out my hand and procured to turn out the bulb from the socket.
I am a tall person, but luckily the ceiling of this bathroom was so high that I had to stand on my toes. The electricity went straight through my right hand, traveled through one side of my trunk, then proceeded along my hip, my right leg and finally my toes. The force was strong enough to throw me off balance and, so, break the electrical contact.
I lied on the floor between pieces of glass for maybe a minute while realising that I just barely had escaped death. I laughed maniacally, whispered: ‘I made it’ with a voice as if I was acting my part in a David Lynch movie and then stood up, switched off the light, walked out of the bathroom and switched off the main electricity too, just to be sure.
Then I sat down, still naked and wet, on the sofa and took a deep breath.
One early morning, while I was still living in Amsterdam, I rode on my bike to work on the Rooseveltlaan, a very broad street, which I assumed was a priority road. Hence, when I saw a car coming from a side street without stopping, and a group of cyclists waiting for the car to cross the bike path, I thought: the bastard! And, also: the fools!
I calculated distances and relative velocities and figured that I could still make it, passing the car with a slight margen. I was right about that. Moreover, feeling that I had both justice and the law on my side, I stuck up my middle finger to the driver in the car while I rode by, just for good measure.
Unfortunately, I had not seen that the side street was wider than I thought and alongside the car I had just passed another car came along which was also about to cross the bike path. Instead, the car hit me on the side, full-on, and both me and my bike made a semi-arc through the air and came to lie down beyond the crossing, back on the bike path.
Just before I landed on the street, still flying in the air, I saw the traffic lights… They were red. Which meant I had been wrong all along. I did not have any priority whatsoever. I laid on the pavement with my eyes closed and my bike lying over me and heard worried voices of other people. I was so much filled with shame about the enormity of my blunder that I did not want to see them. The memory of the middle finger I had raised to the car driver made me cringe in painful embarrassment. I faintly hoped that I was sufficiently badly injured for it to be necessary to take me away unconsciously.
Alas, I had nothing except for some scratches.
The drivers of both cars had stepped out. Both were concerned, even friendly, which made things even worse. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I told them a three hundred thousand times. My face was, not unlike an overripe tomato, ready to explode. I waved away all the help, said I was fine, got up on my bike and rode away.
The shame was so big that I needed pretty much the rest of the entire day to pick myself up again.