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HH Flashback: Misery Can Neither Be Created Nor Destroyed

[See here an archival excerpt from The Harold Herald, the world’s first blog, which I invented in the early 1990s. Yeah, I did… One of the things that made the HH special, and thereby transcend the as-yet-created blog genre, was the fact that we attracted scads of talented contributors. Dave Rose was one of these, and here we reprint one of my favorite bits, first published circa 1995, when CO2 levels were still sorta quaint. But with the onset of winter here in Maine, and wildfires raging across Los Angeles County, it remains damned timely.]

By DR. DAVID ROSE

BOSTON, Mass. — From a meteorological perspective, this winter has been a particularly difficult one in New England. The ground here has been snow-covered for at least a month, and each time the snow begins to retreat a new storm sets in, dumping a foot or two of the white stuff on the city’s long-suffering populace.

In times like these, even the most stalwart, Eastern masochist can cast an admiring eye to the South or West, imagining more comfortable — if less character-building — Februarys. In weaker moments we are all capable of believing we would be less miserable if only the weather were better.

What few people realize, however, is that misery — like matter, energy or gravity — is a measurable entity subject to strict physical laws. Paramount among these is the law of conservation of misery, which states that misery can be neither created nor destroyed. What the law of conservation of misery means is that each human being is subject to a fixed quantity of misery during his or her lifetime. This “misery quotient” is absolutely immutable, a constant that holds across socioeconomic groups and geographic boundaries.

The law can be demonstrated in the field by measuring and tabulating misery in test subjects by using sensitive, electronic monitoring equipment. In the following study, diary entries for three individuals are followed by the amount of misery experienced by each, expressed in misery units (MU).

Subject 1, Los Angeles, Calif.

Day 1: Beautiful day. Saw Erik Estrada at Arby’s (.002 MU)

Day 2: Beautiful day. Discussed Rolfing with a Scientologist. (22.001 MU)

Day 3: Beautiful day. Around noon my house ripped loose from its foundation, slid down a hill, burst into flames and was swallowed up by a huge fissure that opened in the Earth. I was trapped for four weeks and was forced to drink by own urine to survive. One of the paramedics looked just like Kevin Bacon in Footloose. (1223.12 MU)

Subject 2, Tallahassee, Fla.

Day 1: Beautiful day. Stayed in the trailer and ran the air conditioner. (.003 MU)

Day 2: Beautiful day. Noticed that some, but by no means all, of my neighbors bear a striking resemblance to Gomer Pyle. (12.4 MU)

Day 3: The morning was beautiful, but in the afternoon I was mistaken for a German tourist and shot in the head, doused with gasoline, and set afire during a hurricane that destroyed the entire trailer park. (1232.72 MU)

Subject 3, Boston, Mass.

Day 1: Mixture of snow and sleet. Frostbite in right foot. (415.041 MU)

Day 2: Mixture of snow and freezing rain. My right foot has become gangrenous, and the stench is unbearable (415.041 MU)

Day 3: More snow. However, I reflected today that my house remains intact and this gave me a sense of stability and well-being. Right foot amputated. (415.041 MU)

Note the three subjects had very different experiences during the test period. However, the total amount of misery endured by each subject is identical (1245.123 MU).

While life in Boston is characterized by an endless series of petty humiliations and annoyances, life to the South or West consists of long stretches of inane, vapid, colorless contentment punctuated by absolute cataclysm. You can take your pick, but you can’t avoid misery altogether.

And before you move to warmer climes, consider the fact that spring will bring nicer weather to Boston, whereas Gomer Pyle lives in Tallahassee year ’round.

Herald Science Editor David Rose, PhD, is the world’s foremost authority on suffering. While he still gets a charge from the warranted misfortune of others, he specializes in chance trauma and self-imposed misery. He once dieted for two weeks on nothing but chicken boullion and carrots. His latest book, “I’m Wretched, You’re Wretched” (Knopf, $14.95), was published in February.

HH Flashback: Nixon & Dave Remembered

[The Harold Herald, the blog prototype I launched in the early 1990s, was nothing if not political, though the coverage wasn’t always traditional, nor was it my own.  Mark Sullivan, a fellow alum/refugee from the Enterprise-Sun newsroom, was a frequent contributor. Today he’s a skilled and prolific blogger in his own right. His HH essay below, marking the passing of Richard Nixon, was always a favorite of mine.]

By MARK SULLIVAN

Dave was in a triumphant mood when he stopped by my dorm room one night early in the fall of my sophomore year at Boston University. He was quaffing mightily from his favorite mug, a prep-school tankard emblazoned with a Pegasus-like winged beaver, and was pickled to his sizable gills.

I have a picture in my mind’s eye of Dave as he looked that night: The jumbo build, characteristically clothed in club tie and seersucker that gave him the look of giant Ivy League Good Humor man, but this night wrapped in a too-small blue dressing gown; the large head, topped by an outsized Boys’ Regular haircut — part Kemp, part Koppel, crowned by an ungovernable cowlick; the Mr. Limpet-like fish-lips and spectacles, the latter worn for chronic nearsightedness and leading him a resemblance to Piggy, the precocious but doomed overweight boy in the film, Lord of the Flies.

Dave had brought his transcript of President Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, which he proceeded to read in his best Milhousian timbre. When he came to the end of a page, Dave would toss it with a flourish over his shoulder, the sheets fluttering through the air and landing between my bed frame and the wall.

As he approached the end, he summoned all the stage poignancy he could muster: “Uhh, this is, ehr, not goodbye,” he read in choked, Checkers-speech tones, building to the farewell line in fractured Nixonian French: “This is, uhh, ehr, au-rev-oyeur.”

There were tears in his eyes.

I thought of Dave recently when news came of Richard Nixon’s death. David idolized Nixon, or, as he called him, “the, euhr, Pray-sident.” In conversation, Dave would often lapse into his Nixon voice, which was similar to the Nixon impersonation Dan Ackroyd did on Saturday Night Live. The Nixon voice was always preceded and intermittently punctuated by a distinctive low “euhrr” from the back of the throat, as in, “Euhrr, get down on you knees and, euhr, pray with me, Henry.” The delivery was always accompanied by a dismissive, two-digit wave of his index and middle fingers.

Dave Kept about him trappings of his hero. On the large Papal flag that hung on his dorm-room wall were pinned various “Nixon’s The One” campaign buttons. He liked to compose memos, which he would initial “RN.” Opposed to the Kennedys on principle, he liked to play a 1960s novelty recording of the Troggs’ Wild Thing sung by a comic impersonating Bobby Kennedy.

Dave had Praetorian Guard leanings: He once assigned himself the job of advance man to a student-union candidate, preceding his man into the auditorium and giving the audience the “Up, up” gesture, proclaiming, “All rise! All rise for the Pray-sident!”

As a character, Dave was, in a word, preposterous.

He came from a Pennsylvania industrial town on Lake Erie where his family was in the tire business, and from which Dave, given his predilections, had happily escaped none too soon. He endured a checkered career in private school and ended up at Avon Old Farms, in Connecticut, which had been the prep school of last resort.

He weighed in at a good 250 and was given to blazers and oxford-cloth buttondowns of commodious cut, wide-wale corduroys, Norwegian fisherman sweaters, L.L. Bean duck loungers, which were tested by his wide, almost Flintstonian feet. In appearance, he suggested a cross between convicted Nixon aide Chuck Colson and Tweedledee.

Dave disliked the light and kept the shades in his room perpetually drawn, leaving his complexion continually pasty. He was ticklish and did not like to be touched. He chain smoked non-filtered Camels, several packs a day. The butts in his unemptied ashtrays were piled like Mayan pyramids, and his fingers were dyed yellow from the nicotine. He would rise some mornings at 6:30 and immediately begin drinking straight sloe-gin from his 28-ounce Avon Old Farms mug, the flying beaver on which was named Amy.

Dave’s romantic orientation was a matter of conjecture. Some thought him to be asexual. He became obsessed with one friend, John, an easy-going preppie from Wisconsin who sailed boats. Dave referred to John as “the Pray-sident” and kept an hour-by-hour itinerary of John’s classes, which Dave carried about in a case he called “the political football.” John and his roommates gave Dave a key to their dorm suite, which Dave would clean and vacuum.

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Who pioneered the blog? I did. No, really. I did.

Little known fact: I invented the blog. Managed to do it proto-style, in print, and achieve a level of virality before the Internet even existed. A pretty neat trick, if you think about it. Should’ve made me famous, or rich at the very least. Instead, all I got was this lousy WordPress account.

In 1992, I moved to Maine from my native Massachusetts, and as a way of keeping up with friends and family, I started publishing a newsletter dubbed The Harold Herald, a moderately clever handle enabled by my given name, Harold Gardner Phillips III. The motto, “All the news about Hal that Hal deems fit to print”, pretty much summed up the original mission. I wrote all the copy, accounting for the vagaries of my new existence, laid it out in Pagemaker, made a bunch of copies and mailed them out. My mother thought it was hilarious.

Technically it was a fanzine, and there were a few of those around at the time, though, without the Internet, what did we really know about what was happening elsewhere in the world? However, no self-published newsletter that I was aware of, or have since been made aware of, fixated so pointedly on the personal — the way blogs and other social media do today, routinely. Much of it was a parody of journalism in general; newspapers had a masthead so I concocted and continually updated a fake one larded with cultural snark and inside jokes:

Publisher: Harold Gardner Phillips, III

Editor-in-Chief: Hal Phillips

Virtual Editor: Dr. David M. Rose, Ph.D.

Managing Editor: Formletter McKinley

Associate Editor: Throatwarbler Mangrove

Production Manager: Quinn Martin

Circulation Manager: Dr. Margaret Bean-Bayog

Weapons Consultant: Michael Fay

Drug Tsar: Lou’s “Man”

Spiritual Consultant: Massasoit

Bamboo Advisor: Lee Kwan Yoo, Prime Minister Emeritus

Motivational Consultant: Danny Gibbons, Speak, Inc.


I don’t even remember “Lou”, much less his man. But like Barnaby Jones and Mannix, it was a Quinn Martin Production.

This sort of content was interspersed with actual travel logs, book and movie reviews, commentaries, cartoons featuring a recurring neo-nazi named Gunther, even actual news items. Of course, when I bought a new pair of boots, that was news. In time, an increasing number of contributors added their own banalities to the mix and it was all the richer for it.

These HH issues — from 1993 through 1998, I averaged 8-10 editions annually — got passed around. The Portland Press-Herald did a feature and the phenomenon garnered a bit more press, in the Boston Globe and the New England Newspaper Association Bulletin. At one point I cheekily pressed readers for stamp money ($20 earned one a lifetime subscription) and lo and behold they responded. Now, I wouldn’t say it rolled in, but still… At its high point, we had nearly 900 subscribers and a dozen regular contributors. It pays to have friends and family who can write.

When we moved to Camp Vanderlips in 1998, we had a party and naturally the invite warranted full-on feature coverage. A half dozen people I’d never met showed up; one, the sainted Luella, brought a vintage two-man saw with “Camp Vanderlips” emblazoned on the blade, a housewarming gift.

Eventually the responsibilities of wife, family, home and my business squeezed the life out of the HH. There was simply no time for such frivolity, and there certainly wasn’t any money in it. When the Internet arrived and blogging began in earnest, there was a half-hearted attempt to adapt it (an early and quite primitive bulletin-board version). But the thrill and the moment were gone. Now I have this blog and, if you think about it, I’m more or less contributing to the burial of my own legacy.

This makes no sense at all.

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