Imagine you have in your possession a fantastic new game: a programmable, mechanical ant farm. This farm consists of some dirt and water and plants, as well as a few mechanical ants that have tiny programmable brains in them. These ants are also able, by a fun mechanical diversion, to reproduce.
When you first take the ant farm out of the box and assemble it, the ants can’t do anything. You alone are responsible for their behavior by using a set of rules that their programmable brains will follow. You don’t control every decision or motion they make (where would the fun be in that?) but rather you set up the rules and turn them on and watch what happens. Will their little civilization rise to greatness, forcing you to buy expansion modules to give them room to grow? Or will it wither and die before it ever really gets started? Oh, and one other fun attribute possessed by these ants: They know they’re in the game. Their brains are just smart enough to realize that their inconsequential lives are owed to you, the owner of the game. But they’re okay with it because otherwise they would enjoy no other existence.
I can’t say I have never been a religious person, but I can say that I figured most of that stuff out by the age of eight. My parents didn’t attend church, but would take my brother and I if we wanted to go, to any church we wanted to attend. Now that I think about it, I guess they left all the big decisions to us–they didn’t discuss who they voted for, they let us choose our own middle names (we both declined), and they left the fate of our immortal souls in our adorable child-sized hands.
My atheism is rarely discussed–barely even noticed–until someone dies. Then in the middle of all the sadness, certain friends or relatives want to know how I can live with the idea that my uncle isn’t playing fetch with my dog, Patches, on a cloud somewhere for all of eternity. We are hardly theological scholars (in fact, that statement remains true if you replace the word “theological” with any other word besides “Dr. Pepper”), so it can be difficult to explain my beliefs without making them think I’m shitting on theirs.
Something interesting happened after my Dad passed away in 2005. My family started a new holiday tradition in which we each buy a gift for ourselves and we call it our Christmas present from Dad.
The first year my dad gave me some art from Michael Paulus and Sam Brown that I had been wanting forever but kept putting off buying. The next year I got an iPhone. Each year I try to find something unnecessary–something that I can live without but really want, the idea being that it should be a true gift, and not fulfilling a need I would have to take care of anyway.
This year Dad cleaned out my Amazon wishlist (he’s really spoiling me, now). The items will remain wrapped until Christmas morning, when I will find a pretty box with a card that says “Merry Xmas from Dad” containing the 30 Rock soundtrack, the new Amy Sedaris book and a selection of movies that includes Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, Over the Edge and Night of the Comet.
I can’t wait to see the look on my face!
Ironically, my father would never have actually picked any of those things. Like, there’s no way he would have spotted a copy of Night of the Comet and thought, “Oooh–Darci will want that.” (Whereas, I am reasonably sure that literally every other person who knows me, who stumbles upon a copy of Night of the Comet thinks, “Oooh–Darci will want that,” unless they assume I already have it).
But it doesn’t matter what he would or wouldn’t have done. Death has made my Dad a much better gift-giver. And this new tradition has made the holidays without him a little easier to bear.
I want to reassure those certain friends and relatives that I am just fine without the belief in Heaven or any kind of afterlife. I’m fine because I remain connected to my father in the ways that really matter to me.
He will find me whenever cheerleaders from the Valley take on scientist zombies in the wake of a cosmic apocalypse.
September 29, 2009
Pierre Bayard’s ode to philistinism, Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus, or How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is a unique experience. Upon completion of Bayard’s work (one wonders if Bayard himself ever read his own book), I found myself first outraged, then confused, and finally, a little constipated. I thought to myself, “How does this boorish Frenchman claim that a perfunctory flip-through of Anna Karenina should suffice for an understanding of St. Petersburg’s high society during that time—or Jasper, Missouri’s, home to the Double Deuce for that matter?” Can this Bayard be serious? Can we really talk—intelligently—about books we’ve never read?
On the jacket cover of his aggravating book, Mr. Bayard leans against a railing next to a dumpster leading up to a whorehouse, staring at the reader as if to say, “Hey, I’m French—perhaps you’d be interested in some beignets after I’m done with these prostitutes.”
He also claims that he is a professor of literature at the University of Paris. As intellectuals, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been to Paris—but has anybody ever seen this alleged university? Not I. All I saw in Paris was a gift-shop full of chocolate Eiffel Towers at Orly airport, as nobody was kind enough to direct me to my time-share in the 23 rd arrondissement, with what they assured me was a “first-class” view of the Bastille. It seems the French have a knack for deception, while bringing out the worst pseudo-intellectual hobgoblins into the cultural milieu.
Bayard begins by making the ridiculous claim that readers may finally “shake off the guilt” of not having read the great books that shape our world. Be careful with guilt, Mr. Bayard. Had you finished Roadhouse, you might sing a different tune when it comes to washing oneself of both corporeal and spiritual guilt. Do you have any idea what happens at the end? The bristling irony that clips at the thin threads of your argument? I assure you, the culmination of tropes during the end game of Swayze’s opus is terrifying—truly something that stays with you, like a disease, or a small dog stapled to your leg, gnawing at your testicles (not always, but a lot of the time). Read (or watch) the end of this, and you will rethink your gilded shit-head ideas on guilt.
As a freelance intellectual, I often find myself asked to contribute a book review, or deliver a lecture extempore after Jonathan Safran Foer has cancelled. So, I’m no tyro in this sphere. Mr. Bayard recommends that to lecture on a book one hasn’t read, it’s essential to “put aside rational thought and…let your sub-conscience express your personal relationship with the work.” Similarly, to review an unfamiliar book, Mr. Bayard counsels, “closing your eyes to perceive what may interest you about [the book]…then writing about yourself.”
Let me state categorically that allowing the sub-conscious to intervene during a lecture is a dangerous thing. I recall a commencement speech I was asked to give at Princeton (after Jonathan Safran Foer cancelled), in which my goal was to make a connection between the gateway to adulthood and the battle scene against the Cubans over the corn fields of middle America in James Joyce’s, Ulysses. At the time, I was 40 pages short of finishing Ulysses, but I panicked for one brief moment, allowing my subconscious to creep in and reference the heart-pumping Patrick Swayze vehicle, Red Dawn to fill in the gaps created by my literary malfeasance. The audience chortled and squirmed with typical Princeton fatuity, and I spent the rest of the address huddled under the gown of Joyce Carol Oates. Years later, when I explained at a PEN meeting to Mrs. Oates that I had, in my youthful folly, dared to reference a book I had not completely finished and I was soooo sorry and I now know that the varsity football team in Ulysses were fighting Communists, not Moonies, Mrs. Oates gave me a coy smile and sort of whispered, in that way she does, “Would you mind getting me a another vodka gimlet?”
As for book reviews, I don’t have the faintest clue where Mr. Bayard gets off. Close my eyes and write about myself? What kind of self-aggrandizing, philistine claptrap is that? I was once stuck sitting next to Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer extraordinaire of the New York Times, on a flight to Zurich, and it turned out we were both reviewing the same new translation of Don Quixote. After we agreed that one of the key requirements of criticism is the removal of oneself from the work under consideration, I made a reference to the end of Don Quixote, when Sancho Panza is about to join in the rumble between the “Greasers” and the “Socs”, and how it’s a metaphor for the craft of writing. I think she must have been forced to digest this burst of protean insight, because for the rest of the flight, she said little. I remarked how every time I met Gore Vidal, he would sound a rape whistle and hog-tie me to a fire hydrant, and Michiko droned on as usual, always trying to one-up me with her one story; you know, the one she never finishes about, “Stewardess, can I change seats?” What’s the point, Michiko? It’s not even a story, per se.
The truth is, we read for any number of reasons: we crave a good yarn by the camp fire; we savor the world of words created by our greatest artists; we feel a preternatural magnetism toward an understanding of how and why we are the way we are; perhaps we are having a bowel movement. What Mr. Bayard suggests is an approach toward reading, and a discussion of reading, that goes against our nature. We are not partial beings—we are complete—complete in the sense that our minds create our realities. Mind is life. We must subscribe to life whole-heartedly, eschewing the notion that a partial understanding of our world, our ethos, our pathos, is tantamount to a full life. Anything else is a bourgeoise conceit! Dumbing-down displays the utter convenience of ignorance!
Bayard is a travesty of nature, like a Gaulloises-puffing ogre. His mongloid understanding of human nature will eventually lead to an early demise. He is a French Hamlet (although presumably shorter), pathologically self-destructing at every turn, although you’d think he might have learned something from all that post-mortem correspondence with Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, he escapes, but at what cost? What now will his wife Molly do? Can you have sex with a ghost? Is Claudius really going to poison a glass of Mouton Rothschild just because Baby Houseman is a Jew? And what of the Roadhouse?
I am reminded of something Flaubert said upon completion of Madame Bovary: “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n’est-ce pas?” Had Bayard finished Madame Bovary, he would have recognized—as Special Agent Johnny Utah did about Bodhi right before the appearance of Rodolphe—not everybody wants to be rescued from the fifty year storm.
You might remember from an earlier story that I gave the go-ahead for my mom’s amputation. It wasn’t THAT big a deal. It was only ONE foot. (She had two, for heaven sakes. People use prostheses all the time. No one chooses to die instead of getting a single little foot removed, right?)
My mother was always changing her mind. There are hundreds of stories about her changing her mind. How was I to know she wasn’t going to change her mind for the first time in her entire life?
In the ten years she lived either with us or a block from us, I took her shopping frequently. First to buy something, then to return it, then to buy it again and to return it all over again and, believe it or not, to drive back to buy it yet again. My mother even returned FOOD to the grocery store. Who returns food to the grocery store?
Once she bought a pair of pants from Talbot’s. She had them for months but decided that she no longer liked them. I drove her to return the pants. The saleslady opened the box and looked at the pants. My mother had shortened them. The saleslady looked at the cuffs and didn’t bat an eye. Talbot’s still took them back. Who knew you could alter clothes and still return them? She had shrunken to way less than five feet. Who could ever use them? A midget?
My mother was supposed to get a prosthesis. She was all set to go to physical therapy and I had hoped that she could adapt to the new “foot” with time. But regardless of what the therapist or the doctor or the nurses or I did, she refused to even try.
When this was happening, we got a postcard in the mail with a painting on the front from an Art Gallery. It was a painting by Seth Michael Forman. I brought it in to show Mom.
“Irene Marie! This is Daddy and me in heaven! And look! My FOOT gets to come!”
“You have to buy this painting!” she exclaimed. So I did. It’s hanging on the wall right now.
I brought the bottom three, Timothy, Lenore and Benjamin, to visit her because I was under the ridiculous delusion that she cared about her grandchildren in spite of how she behaved around them and what she said about them over the years. (The top two were away at school and couldn’t visit as often.)
During one visit, NANA addressed Tim:
“You have access to sharp objects, don’t you, Tim? Bring me some sharp scissors or a sharp paring knife so I can slit my throat, okay Tim?”
“Mom. This is not the way you speak to your grandchildren. Ask them about their day. What they did in school.”
“I don’t give a shit what they did in school, Irene Marie.”
“Kiss your Nana and we have to go home now.”
The next day I brought the bottom three back in, since obviously I was delusional. We brought store-bought get-well cards and homemade ones every day.
“Lenore, go under the sink. There are lots of poisons under the sink. Put them all in a bag and bring them to me, like a good girl. I need poisons to drink and they won’t give me any here, the bastards.”
“Kiss your Nana goodnight. We’ll visit her again soon but it’s time to go home now.”
The next day the bottom three brought more flowers for her bedside stand.
“We love you, Nana.”
“Benjamin, you’re the smart one. Find out Dr. Kevorkian’s phone number, write it down and give it to me tomorrow.”
“Nana, I don’t want to be a party to that. I know that you want me to do this so that he will help you to commit suicide with his death machine. I am not comfortable with being your accomplice in this endeavor.”
(Seriously, ask anyone, this is EXACTLY how Benjamin spoke as a little kid. Ben was practically born speaking like William Buckley. )
“Time to go home, kids, lots of homework to do tonight.”
Here’s a picture of Lenore and Benjamin with NANA. Tim was there but there was no more room on the bed.
I decided, long overdue, I’ll admit, that bringing the children was:
1. Hurting my children
2. Not helping NANA one bit.
So. From then on I went by myself.
I brought her fresh fruit every day. She loved fresh fruit. I cooked foods that she liked and brought her small portions most days because she said the food in the nursing home was intolerable. I fed her. I changed her clothes. I took her to the bathroom with her one foot. I bathed her. I washed her hair. I put rollers in her hair. I combed out her hair into a hairdo she always hated, I washed her false teeth. I tweezed the hairs that sprouted from her chin.
She was having a lot of problems in the nursing home. Her Evil Roommate was spying on her. The Evil Roommate was telling tales and making up lies. She needed to get rid of the Evil Roommate.
NANA had trouble telling time because recently the hands of the clock kept spinning. She needed a better clock. I brought her another clock. Oddly, that clock had the same problem with spinning hands. The hands of the clocks didn’t spin while I watched, but perhaps they spun when I wasn’t there. It was impossible for her to tell the time. It was a conspiracy against her!
People were stealing her clothes. All the good clothes were missing. Someone knew which of her clothes were expensive. She blamed the laundry. So I did her laundry from then on. After that, people were stealing her clean clothes from her closet while she slept.
Insects were crawling up the wall and over her bed. She rang the call button to complain day and night. The room was checked thoroughly and frequently, but no actual insects were found. She continued to see insects swarming everywhere. She saw them when I was with her. I swatted the wall with a towel and told her they were dead, but she continued to see them.
One particularly bad day, I came in and she asked for her lunch.
I went to fetch it.
She told me to take the damn tray away.
She told me she didn’t want that lunch.
She wanted cereal.
I went out and asked the nurse if there was any cereal. There was and I brought it back with a spoon and a bowl. She said that she could not be expected to eat her cereal without a damn tray.
I went to fetch the damn tray again.
When I returned she was pouring milk into the box.
“You don’t want to do that, MOM. Here, let me help you.”
I put the cereal in the bowl and poured the milk in the bowl for her.
She wanted more napkins, so I went to fetch them.
Then I returned.
She had put her false teeth in her cereal.
She was drinking the water out of her false teeth cup.
I took a deep breath.
I said, “Mom, you don’t want to be drinking that!”
I took her teeth out of the cereal and took the teeth cup from her hands.
I ran to the bathroom and rinsed them both off.
I ran back and in that short time she had poured the entire bowl of cereal and milk all over the nice clean clothes she had on.
Right on her lap.
“Now look what I’ve done! And this is an historic document!”
“Don’t you worry, Mom, I can clean that document as good as new.”
“Are you blind, Sara? This document is ruined!”
(Try to keep in mind that I am still, and have always been, Irene, and, I’m going to go out on a limb here, [pardon the pun], but I question the existence of the historic document on my mother’s lap.)
When NANA’S birthday came, I made an exception and brought the bottom three again. (It is obvious that I am learning disabled.)
It didn’t really matter, because she didn’t know who they were, thinking that Lenore was her sister-in-law, Betty, and Timothy was Tushar and Benjamin she just couldn’t recognize. I’m not sure she even saw him, hovering there trying to be helpful.
Not too many days after that I was just finishing up making dinner before I picked the kids up from school, when I got a call.
“Is this Irene Zion? This is your mother’s nursing home and you must come immediately to escort her to the hospital by ambulance.”
My mother had put a plastic bag over her head and taped it around her neck with scotch tape.
Her roommate called the nurse on her.
“We don’t keep suicides here.”
“You can throw people out of a nursing home?”
The answer was an unqualified yes. (Who knew?)
I said I would get there as soon as I could. I still had three kids to pick up from school.
I brought the kids home and left them there, thinking that this was the lesser of the child abuse, leaving them alone, rather than taking them to the scene of Nana’s attempted suicide. Victor would be home in a couple of hours to watch them.
I drove to the nursing home. It turns out that the plastic bag my mom had placed over her head and scotch taped around her neck was one in which I had brought her fresh fruit. This would later be a bone of contention with my brother, Woody. He claimed, and still does, that her suicide attempt was entirely my fault for bringing her fruit every day in a plastic bag. I could have mentioned that I didn’t bring her the scotch tape, but I don’t think it would have helped.
My mom complained emphatically about her turncoat, no-good, hateful, Evil Roommate.
“How dare that bitch interfere with my plans! Who does she think she is anyway? She should rot in hell! Bitch has been taking notes and telling the nurses on me from the beginning!”
Once you try to kill yourself, no matter how ineptly, you must leave and go to the Looney Bin. So. To the Looney Bin we went.
When we arrived, the doctor at the admitting desk asked her some questions.
“What day is it?”
“Tuesday.” (It was not Tuesday.)
“Who is the President?”
“How old are you?”
“Who is this?” (Indicating me.)
“I have no idea.”
“Why do you think that you are here?”
“My Evil Roommate is a bitch.”
“How old are you again?”
“Would you do something for me? Subtract 7 from 100.”
“Can you try that again? Subtract 7 from 100.”
“Where do you live?”
“Baltimore.” (We were in Champaign, Illinois at the time.)
“How old are you?”
It went on like this interminably. She got not one single question correct. Finally, we were about to commit her to a short stay in the Looney Bin. It did seem that she required a bit of mental help.
My mother called me to her side.
“Here, you probably want this.”
She grinned a huge grin and pulled out a wadded-up fruit baggie from her pocket.
“You probably don’t want to leave this with me.”
She was giggling.
“I thought that they searched you when you came in, Mom.”
“Well I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
As we left her, NANA was giggling up a storm.