6.02 / February 2011

Notes on the Notebook of a Five-Year Old Neurotic

listen to this story

Once Upon a Time There Was a Pirate Ship And it Sank

When I was five years old, I unknowingly channeled the voice of Ernest Hemingway. Those were my words, scribbled on the first page of a marble notebook-actually, the only thing written in that particular notebook-in handwriting that now seems so foreign to me.

It Was a Profound Story

I look back at this now and see it as a short story, but that was not the case years ago. I told anyone who would listen-my parents, aunts, grandparents, people in the mall, strange babies in strollers-that I was working on a novel. To me, it was a novel. How easy it is for time to change the way we think of things.

It clearly wasn’t a novel.

Why a Pirate Ship?

When people ask why, I often respond by telling them I was a pirate for Halloween that given year. But I’m pretty sure that’s actually a lie. I was a red Power Ranger-albeit The Red Power Ranger-there are pictures to prove it-but I wanted to be a pirate, and that is truly what matters. This is when I learned the difference between the intentional and unintentional lie.

Of course, the question always went: Why a pirate ship? Never: Why did it sink? No one seemed phased by my five-year old sense of impending disaster.

A Phase I Wouldn’t Actually Call A Phase

I was never particularly fond of boats-a dislike that stemmed from my hatred of fish and all things with gills-but nevertheless, the pirate story was written before my Titanic phase, before I had ever heard of Ernest Hemingway, before I ever knew that he shot himself in the face. This Titanic phase is exactly what it sounds like-although phase implies: in passing, transcience. It was more like living seven years of my life with a rapidly solidifying crystal obsession.


ob ses sion (ub’se sh un) n. an unwelcome, uncontrollable and persistent idea, thought, image, emotion, or giant fucking boat that is often accompanied by a submerging sense of anxiety: the sad boy was scared of cruise ships because he was ~ with the Titanic; the sad neurotic boy told his parents that if they went on a cruise, they would definitely die; the sad neurotic little boy had fears that bordered on ~ concerning a giant fucking boat.


early 16th cent. (in the sense [siege]): from the Latin obsessio(n-), from the verb obsidere (NOT: to be confused with obsidian, from the Latin obsidianus, from Obsius: a hard dark, glasslike volcanic rock formed by the rapid solidification of lava without crystallization; noun).

My Brilliant Psychiatrist

My brilliant psychiatrist was concerned when I showed her the story. Channeling voices can do this kind of thing-cause concern. She suggested that, maybe, I had not channeled anything, anyone. She said that maybe he had channeled the voice of a five-year old.

It was certainly possible that he had. At the time I wrote the story, I had not read any Hemingway, so there is simply no conceivable way his voice could have trickled into my work. To prove this to you, I will now provide you with a catalog of dates.

A Catalog of Dates

Year The Titanic Sank: 1912
Year Hemingway Wrote The Old Man & The Sea: 1952
Year I Was Born: 1989
Year I Read The Old Man & The Sea: 2004


Deconstructing Hemingway

The Old Man & The Sea is about an old man on the sea. The old man is in a boat that is on the sea. The boat may or may not be older, but the sea is certainly the oldest. But it is not called The Man & The Old Sea because it is already evident that the sea is old, but it is not already evident that the man is old. The sea is water and water symbolizes life. The end.

Deconstructing the Titanic

The Titanic was a big boat. The sea was even bigger. It hit ice. The ice deconstructed the ship. The ice is water, but a different form. The water is a symbol, but a different form. Water symbolizes death. The end.

Pre-James-Cameron-Movie Fantasy

Before the release of the movie starring Kate Winslet-who was the only person that really mattered in that movie besides Kathy Bates-I had this fantasy of being on the Titanic the night it sank. In this fantasy, I am a boy wearing something that resembles burlap. In this fantasy, I am looking at myself instead of looking from within myself. In this fantasy, I am completely devoid of emotion, as if I am completely aware that I will either be saved because I am a child, or aware of the fact that I will soon drown. Then, like most things, it comes to an abrupt end.

Post-James-Cameron-Movie Fantasy

After the release of the movie starring Kate Winslet, the fantasy remains the same, with one exception. Every woman is wearing either velvet or taffeta, and I am clinging to Kathy Bates’ left breast.

A List That, In a Way, is a Chronology of My Early Life

Titanic: The Movie. 1997. Cried.
Ghosts of the Abyss. IMAX. 2002, twice. Did not cry, twice.
Kathy Bates, yes.
Kate Winslet, yes.
But not Leonardo, no.
Titanic: Adventure Out of Time. Videogame, played by lost. Traumatized by sites of drowning avatars.
British accents.

Favorite Line From the 1997 Movie

“This is bad.”

Do Not Be Fooled

This line makes the movie seem like a satire, but that is the genius behind it. No shit this is bad.

What I Would Have Done If I Were On The Ship

Screamed: This is bad.

Then: Shit my pants.

(Possibly at the same time, for dramatic effect.)

Attempted: To use my copy of The Old Man & The Sea as a floatation device, unsuccessfully.

Sad Realization #1

You go into the movie knowing the ending.

Sad Realization #2

There would be no sequel.

Sad Realization #3

There were no explicit pirates on the Titanic. Thieves, maybe. But pirates? No.

Sad Realization #4

Water can kill, and time is fluid.

A Note on the Series of Sad Realizations

How could one not remember where he was or what he was doing when those first thoughts of mortality, physicality, enter the mind?

I was on the playground, eating apple slices near Ms. Dribelbous’ vegetable garden, picking a scab that resembled the shape of The Grand Staircase, crafted in the old English William and Mary style. I was curious to see if I would bleed and if it would hurt. It did.

Because Curious Children Are Often Neurotic Children

Q. How many bones are on that ship?

Q. How many hearts?

Q. At what rate do organs decompose in salt water?

Q. Fresh water?

Q. Do changes in air pressure affect decomposition?

Q. What would it have been like to be on the Titanic?
A. Dream.

Q. What would it have been like to be on the Titanic?
A. Wet dream.

Q. What would it have been like to be on the Titanic?
A. Depends on your class.

Q. Mom! What class are we?
A. Why do you ask?

A. Because of the Titanic.
Q. Would you stop reading those books already.

Example of Questions That Have Quantifiable Answers

Q. How many Happy Meal boxes would it take to fill the area inside the Titanic?
A. 342,157,819

Q. How many calories is that?
A. Enough to kill you. And a whale.

Q. How many books did you own concerning the Titanic?
A. 4 + 1 about ship wrecks = 5

The Old Man and The Sea Is a Book But Not About a Ship Wreck

It is instead about discovery. Discovering the wreck of the self.


If I could channel the voice of the Titanic, there would be a lot of dramatic pauses.

Though it happened in the past, it still haunted me, as if it happened continuously-again and again-in the present. I learned to detach, to numb.


Once upon a time there was a pirate ship and it sank.

At one time, this seemed to me perfect. My perfect little novel. My perfect little novel-written in crayon-with a complete, linear narrative arc and sense of finality.

Years Later, I Knowingly Channel the Voice of the Past Perfect Continuous

There once had been a pirate ship. It sunk.

Joseph Cassara is a writing student at Columbia University. His work has been featured in Eclectica Magazine, The Eye, Quarto, and Electric Literature's The Outlet. His epistolary-style column "Campus Anonymous Letters" is published weekly in The Faster Times. He lives in New York City.
6.02 / February 2011