AT THE AGE of 39, a time when a man should be coming to terms with himself, I've made an alarming personal discovery.
The alarming discovery is this: I have started talking to myself.
In fact, I talk to myself all the time. The conversations, by and large, are not that interesting, even dreary, really. Most originate out of frustration, such as when I'm tailing some idiot who's doing 45 mph in the fast lane, or I misplace my wallet, or some thug in my own household makes off with my tomatoes, as we will see shortly.
Talking to yourself is considered a significant milestone in the aging process, although not necessarily one most people are proud of.
The fact is, I used to think that people who talked to themselves had a screw loose.
I would see these deranged people on the sidewalk of any major city, wild-eyed and agitated and mumbling something like: "He don't know. He thinks he knows, but he don't know. I'm the one who knows. Believe me, I know. Uh-huh. But I ain't telling anyone. No, sir. Gonna keep it to myself. Uh-huh. Don't see no need to tell him . . ."
Now I go home and find myself alone in the kitchen, wild-eyed and agitated and mumbling: "Where's that tomato? There was a tomato here yesterday. Don't tell me someone took that tomato! No, sir. Don't tell me that! Can you believe this?! Someone took my tomato?! I swear, what is the world coming to when they take a man's tomato and don't even . . . "
Good Lord. In other words, about the only difference between me and these deranged people is, I'm not swatting at imaginary bugs in front of my face.
My mother was the first sane person I knew who actually talked to herself, although I thought she was nuts at the time.
This was back when I was about 12 years old. In a sing-song voice that would carry throughout the house, we would often hear her saying: "Now where did I put those car keys? Just had them a minute ago. I swore I put them on the coffee table. Or maybe it was the hutch. Will you look at this carpet? If I don't take a vacuum cleaner to this carpet soon, why . . . "
I'd listen to the poor woman babble from the next room and shake my head sadly.
"They'll be taking her away soon -- a year or two, tops," I'd tell my sister. "Locked ward, burly attendants, visitors only on weekends, the whole bit. I hope you can cook."
(Even back then, I had the kind of upbeat personality that made people want to be around me for long stretches at a time.)
As it turned out, they never did come for my mother, to the enormous relief of all of us -- especially my brother and me, who needed rides to Little League and back.
Now, of course, I know that the poor woman was not off her rocker. She was merely settling the problems of her world in her own way.
As a person who has come out of the closet on this issue, I can tell you this: Talking to yourself in public is still a risky business.
As a general rule, only winos, strung-out junkies, the bug-swatting insane and tweedy 17th-century college lit professors talk to themselves outside the privacy of their own homes.
You can get away with talking to yourself in a car, though, because people assume you're singing along with the radio.
I can't tell you how many times I've been stopped at a red light, mumbling to myself about some idiot who just cut me off, only to feel someone's eyes staring at me from the next car.
What you do in this situation is start tapping your hands on the --board and belting out the chorus of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" or "Help Me Rhonda," hopefully convincing the other motorist that you are not some unhinged urban terrorist intent on slamming his car into a crowd of pedestrians at 70 mph.
A nice big smile wouldn't hurt, either.