I had a friend in high school who played with me on a community league softball team. One evening the team we were scheduled to play didn’t show up. A lot of our dads were there, so I suggested with enthusiasm that since we had the field to ourselves, we could play a fathers’ and sons’ game of softball.

My friend said to me “My dad is not going to play softball”.

“Why?” I joked, “Does he have a wooden leg or something?”.

With suddenly red-rimmed eyes, my friend said softly “Yes”.

What are the odds? I was so sorry and I said I was sorry over and over and even as I write this three decades later I am consumed with remorse over how I upset my friend. But at least over the intervening I have heard other stories that console me somewhat with the realization that it could have been even worse.

Dick Cavett was once walking on a beach when he ran into someone he sort of knew, but couldn’t recall his name or anything else about him. The man clearly knew Cavett though, and started engaging him in conversation. Desperately trying to find something to talk about while not letting on that he couldn’t remember who the man was, Cavett recalled that he had seen in the NYT Arts and Leisure section that a new play was opening on Broadway. He hadn’t read the article, but remembered the title of the play, so he asked if the stranger could believe that “junk like that” was getting on to Broadway.

The stranger replied “I wrote that”.

But it could even worse still, as I found out from John Cleese’s recent autobigography So Anyway. Cleese had written a script to a film and heard from a colleague that a particular director, Jay Lewis, had liked it enormously. A few days later, Cleese rang Lewis to ask him to direct the film:

The phone was answered by Jay’s girlfriend, the actress Thelma Ruby. I greeted her and told her that I was delighted to hear the news about Jay. “We buried him this afternoon,” she replied. I stammered that I was not delighted that he was dead, just that I was delighted he’d liked the script before he died, but that, on the contrary…Then I said, “I’m sorry,” put the phone down and killed myself. Several times.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys