Whenever I get official-looking mail at the office, my colleagues crowd around me and insist that I open it on the spot. Apparently, they’ve got an office pool on whether I’ll be served a summons or asked to testify before Congress. Of course, my correspondence has never prescribed either of these fates, though a recent envelope from the Paracosmological Society seemed like a bit of both.
The primary mandate of the Paracosmological Society is to recognize emerging paracosms in contemporary letters and, according to the society’s Web site, “foster their prosperity in the off-chance that someday we may have to move there.”
By paracosm the society means an imagined, detailed, fictional universe of the ilk most often witnessed in fantasy films and literature. The concept was first clinically explored in the ‘80s by Brit psychiatrist Stephen MacKeith in his tome “The Development of Imagination: The Private Worlds of Childhood,” and referenced as recently as Tuesday by the New York Times in a review of Neal Gabler’s biography “Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination” (though the venerable Grey Lady spelled paracosm wrong).
Similar in some ways to the alternate universes that conveniently bloom like mushrooms in quantum physics, paracosms have been the rage in intellectual circles in recent months since the real world is such a mess and because endowments are burning holes in the tweed pockets of those whose budgets must be drained by the end of the fiscal year.
I first learned of paracosms in the third grade during a parent-teacher conference (about a half breath before my instructor said “same planet, different worlds” while reporting my academic performance) and was bemused to see it on official stationary that included an invitation to panel an upcoming Paracosmological Society conference as a substitute. It was one of those sing-for-your-supper deals that came replete with accommodations in West Marin and a coupon for a free bicycle rental. Of course, I accepted the gig and last weekend found myself winding up Highway 1 in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais, contemplating what had brought me to the society’s attention besides perhaps an errant Google search. I learned soon enough, however, while onstage before a couple hundred paracosmonauts, that the invite was a result of this very column. Flattered as I was, a lingering professional ethos compelled me to suggest that perhaps the organization had confused the notion of a literary parallel universe with my mere local allegory (a necessity, lest I join the bodies I’ve helped bury).
“When I hearken back to my original intentions, ‘Nomaville’ was to be Sonoma as observed through a glass darkly – specifically a wine glass,” I explained, then waited for a laugh that never came. “Eventually, however, Nomaville became less a vaguely disguised locale and more of a state of mind.”
“Some might say a ‘mode of being,’” my bespectacled interlocutor elaborated. I agreed, though my follow-up quip that, “I’d really rather make Nomaville a brand concept and flip it in 18 months” only received a few cautious titters.
“We asked our members to submit questions to our panelists,” the man said, thumbing a handful of index cards. “Would you mind if I read a few now?”
I smiled, shook my head and suddenly understood why firing squads dispense blindfolds.
“As the primary architect of Nomaville, would you forgo your omnipotence to live amidst your creation?” the man read.
A young woman in the back row high-fived her companion, so I addressed my answer to her.
“How do you think I ended up here?” I joked – again, nary a giggle. I endured the audience’s uncomfortable silence as I mulled my utter failure to amuse them. Then it dawned on me – my answer wasn’t funny at all. It was true.