Summer 2001

The Eleventh Commandment

Wear a hat!

Jonathan Ames

It is a well-known secret among biblical scholars that there is a missing commandment. The Famous Eleventh. But biblical scholars don’t like to talk about this mistake because they don’t want people to get upset.

Luckily, though, the Eleventh has been preserved orally for thousands and thousands of years. You’ll recognize it immediately. “Wear a Hat!” God commanded Moses on that fateful night in the desert, and then He added, “It’s chilly up here on this mountain. Are you looking to get sick?”

The reason why this crucial commandment got left off was because Moses, like most people back then and continuing to the present, only had ten fingers. So as God rattled off His Laws, Moses jotted them down on his digits with a leaking desert berry. Taking notes this way was a common practice at the time and is the original source for the term “shorthand.”

Well, after all ten fingers were used up, he cribbed on his wrist, “Wear a Hat!” I should point out that most commandments originally had exclamatory remarks, but for some reason stiff-necked grammar teachers have had an unusual prejudice against “!s” and they are practically extinct in literature, though they are trying to make a comeback in comic books. If you think about it, there probably would be a lot less breaking of commandments if “!s” were reinstated. There’s a big difference between, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” and “Thou shall not commit adultery!” Hear the emphasis? Much more intimidating.

Anyway, after getting everything down with his leaking berry, Moses figured that after God left he would put the Laws on stone tablets for his presentation to the group. The problem is that Moses forgot about the Eleventh Commandment on his wrist because his baggy robe covered it up. The tablets were done by the time he remembered, and it was too arduous a task to start over. You’ll notice that there are a lot of misspellings on stone tablets and in Egyptian tombs for this very reason.

Well, Moses let the people know about the Eleventh, and so the Word spread, but it lacked official weight having been left off the tablets, and people didn’t refer to it as a Commandment. But it did become an underground hit, if you know what I mean. And it’s the reason to this day why the Pope, religious Jews, Country and Western singers, sea captains, and people in cold and warm climates—in essence, all people—wear headgear.

Historically, the most strident oral preservers of this commandment were the females of the Hebrews (genus: “The Jewish Mother”), and the explanation for this is clearly scientific. Females talk more than males because males are too embarrassed in mixed company to say most of what they’re thinking. For example: “She’s gorgeous. Oh, what I could do to her. I wonder what her boobs look like. I’d love to get my mouth on them. Her ass is a little big, but I like it that way. I just wish I could smell her hair and then mount her.”

Thus, the women of Moses’ tribe—the more biologically prolix of the two sexes—became oral, walking Torahs, especially when it came to the Missing Eleventh. So for thousands of years, Jewish men, like myself, have listened to their Jewish women—that is to say, their wives and mothers, who are essentially the same person according to the latest polls—and we always wear a hat, most noticeably when it’s cold out and during Yom Kippur.

Now we’ve come to the point in the article where I segue from this heady scholarly discussion into what is known as a “personal essay.” How one makes such a transition is never easy, and that’s why it’s best to simply announce it, as I have just done.

So my mother and other females in my family—an intrusive great aunt named Doris comes strongly to mind—were always urging me as I grew up to cover my head. Like God when He was scolding Moses, they believed that a chill in the area above the neck will cause infections in the whole system. For example, a sub-commandment to the Eleventh, pointed out by radical Talmudists, is “Don’t Go Out with a Wet Head!” And I heard this sub-proclamation from my mother, aunts, great aunts, and grandmothers almost as much as the Oral Eleventh.

But health- and weather-oriented warnings were not confined solely to the women of my clan. My father had a tremendous respect and terror for all things meteorological. He was a traveling salesman of textile chemicals and his livelihood depended on his ability to navigate, like a sailor but in a car, the roadways of the Eastern Corridor. Naturally, weather conditions were very important to him. So each night before retiring and then first thing in the morning upon awakening, he would listen to his special mustard-colored weather-radio. The thing was the size of a paperback novel and it possessed a twelve-inch antenna. It had no dials, you simply pressed a button and out came this staticky, nonsensical ticker-tape of weather conditions, read most likely by some rotating shift of prisoners at the white-collar federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

I make this conjecture because no person of their own volition could possibly want to read a weather report non-stop for hours at a time. Clearly, it was a depressing job—one could hardly understand what the announcer was saying, the voice was always so deadpan and defeated, though my father was enraptured by these broadcasts and would sit on the edge of his bed in an attentive stupor. I can tell you it wasn’t healthy for the young me to see my father like that all the time—children of alcoholics will appreciate, I believe, this kind of early wounding.

So because of his brainwashing at the hands of this weather-radio, my father, with great foreboding in his voice, would make announcements to the family, like, “It’s going to rain on Thursday!” This kind of thing would usually be stated on a Monday, and I—a mere child of four or five—would be frightfully agitated until that rainfall occurred three days later, by which time I would have learned from my father that “Temperatures are going to drop on Sunday!” There was never a calm moment. I grew up in a constant state of atmospheric peril. The women were telling me to cover my head and my father was telling me that the sky was falling. It did make for a nice synergy, though. It’s called anxiety.

So mine was clearly a sheltered upbringing. I didn’t know until I was in college that people drove in the rain. And even in the snow! To me, this was a revelation, and I became rather rebellious. My freshman year at Princeton, I purposely would go motoring at night during snow flurries. “I am not my father’s son!” I would think triumphantly, as the snowflakes fell like white stars from the black sky.

One night, though, during some heavy flurries (I wasn’t so rebellious that I’d go out in an actual storm), I did skid and damaged a parked car. I tried to escape, but was spotted by a man walking his dog. In snow flurries! He was obviously a hardy gentile. Police were involved. It cost me a lot of money in fines and reparations. So it just goes to show you that the sins of the father are visited on the sons. If I hadn’t been trying so hard not to be fearful like my dad, I wouldn’t have scratched that poor innocent parked car.

And I am still in a state of rebellion against my father. Whenever I go home for a visit (traveling by train from New York to New Jersey), I’ll call a few days beforehand, and I will say to my dad, “I’ll be home on Friday and head back Sunday.”

“They’re calling for freezing rain on Saturday,” he’ll say, with the utmost gravity, even though my travel days—by train!—are Friday and Sunday. But in his mind, damaged by that radio of his, any bad weather within 24 hours of travel is to be feared.

“Well, let’s start worrying about it now,” I’ll say snidely, rebelliously, and things will be bad between us before I’m even home.

This rebel side of my personality may sound healthy to you—declaring my independence and all that—and perhaps it is, but I have an unhealthy side when it comes to the way I was raised around the issue of weather. Every January and February, because of repressed childhood worry about storms or even humidity, I have Seasonal Affect Disorder (what’s known, curiously enough, as S.A.D.) These repressed feelings, usually kept under control ten months out of the year, are let out when I am weakened by a lack of sunlight. Every year I say I’m going to buy one of those special UV lamps, but I’m always too depressed to go shopping. And then when the depression lifts, I forget about it until next January and by then it’s too late to get a lamp because the depression is back. Life can be difficult this way.

So during these depressing months of January and February, I suffer from suicidal ideation and too much sex with self. I spend a lot of time in bed thinking about how different writers have committed suicide and I go over which method I might try—Hart Crane’s steamship, Hemingway’s shot gun, Plath’s oven, Kosinski’s plastic bag. But after indulging for a while in these morbid fantasies a surge of life force announces itself. One can only spend so much time in bed before the old hand sneaks down and starts to fondle.

The fondling then completely overtakes the suicidal ideation and I feel pretty good. I have company! It’s hard to be depressed when there are others around— my mind is peopled with a variety of Hollywood starlets and local waitresses.

A bottle of champagne is presented. There’s lots of kissing and bouncing on knees and cries of endearment, like, “Put it in me!” That sort of thing. And this wonderful grand party lasts all of forty-five seconds. The old blasted hand knows too well what it’s doing. “Don’t go girls!” I want to cry out, but they vanish, fleeing my mind, no longer interested in me. The champagne is spilled.

After that there’s about five seconds of a sort of brain-death. I feel quiet. Pax, as if I had taken too much Paxil. But then consciousness returns and demands that somebody clean up the party’s mess. “Oh, God,” I then think, searching for a towel. “This has been going on for twenty years. I’m pathetic. A lifetime of masturbation. I should just kill myself.”

Depression, they say, is cyclical. And this is an obvious example of it. I start out wanting to die, then I want to live—the starlets! the waitresses!— and then I want to die again. I find this very annoying. Luckily, I only have to endure this every January and February.

But there is something that threatens my well-being for all twelve months. Far worse than Seasonal Affect Disorder is having Bush as President. I think he’s more damaging than sun-muting winter skies. He’s like an eclipse. Every time I think of him in office I lose serotonin. I will dub this syndrome: Bush Affect Disorder. And it’s going to last, I’m afraid, for four years, and maybe even eight. This is very, very B.A.D. No wonder he’s so into prescription drugs. I’m sure he’s in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies. Antidepressant profits during his administration are going to skyrocket! I’m very angry about this, but my anger has no outlet, and they say that swallowed anger becomes depression, like the way that beans become trapped gas. So I’m bloated with anger. Bloated with depression.

Well, we’re at the point now in the essay where I tie this all together. Of course, just as with the transition I mentioned several paragraphs ago, this can be difficult. In fact, it’s so difficult, I’m not sure I can pull it off. I will tell you that it’s mid-February and it’s freezing out, and because I’m depressed and sad I’m going to the movies in half an hour. To get to the movies, I have to walk. So I’m going to bundle myself up and I’m going to wear a hat. Rather, I should say, I’m going to wear a hat! And I’ll say the same to you—and please pass it on, you’ll be doing God’s work—WEAR A HAT!

Jonathan Ames is a writer based in New York. He is the author of two novels, The Extra Man and I Pass Like Night, and a memoir, What’s Not to Love?

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