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July 14, 2012
All cultures have their own particular concept of “limbo,” purgatory, or some other form of antechamber to paradise. The word “limbo” itself comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an “edge or boundary.” Used as proper nouns, Limbus describes the edge of Hell, and Limbo is a place for the souls of unbaptized infants and patriarchs who died before the coming of Christ, to wait for Christ to be born and pardon them. Once pardoned, they are in effect “saved” and become de facto Christians, and are ﬁnally granted access to eternal paradise. But the Messiah doesn’t seem to come around very often, so they sit around like millions of undocumented immigrants, waiting for the next mass amnesty.
Purgatory, by comparison, is like the express line at the US-Mexican Border, the one for people with spotless backgrounds, or diplomatic cover.
I read an essay a few months ago by David Rakoff called “Another Shoe,” which details his second bout with cancer at 49. His first was lymphoma in his twenties, and now there is a tumor in his shoulder, probably caused by the radiation he had the first time around. This newest cancer threatens to cause the removal of his entire left arm, which, you can imagine, is a particularly daunting notion for a writer. (The best part of the essay comes when he practices what life would be like with one arm, literally tying one hand behind his back and trying to go about his day.) The biggest thing he takes away from the experience is extreme gratitude for not losing his arm, and this: the decision to live without letting the fear of death swallow him whole. He also accurately observes that we are all dealt a fair amount of crap in this life, and the best way to respond is to simply get back to the business of grocery shopping, getting our hair cut, paying our parking tickets, and loving the people we love—because life continues on, whether we are participating or not.
The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.
November 28, 2011
In 2006 I was going through some identity issues. My upbringing was decidedly American, but my habits were infused with Filipino sensibilities. I had a lot of tension between by East/West selves. My solution was a summer in the Philippines to resolve the conflict.
When I mentioned the idea to my parents their immediate reaction was horror. They used their best tactics to talk me out of it. My father used terror: “You know they kidnap Americans over there? If you get kidnapped, I can’t come get you. ” My mother appealed to my fastidious nature: “Did you know not all the bathrooms have toilet paper? Some are pit toilets. It’s gross. You won’t like it.” Thing is, my folks walked away from their families to create a life for my siblings and me in the U.S. We weren’t the type of immigrants that returned for visits. Their split had been decisive. I wondered if they were afraid that I would rewrite the romantic narrative they authored. It didn’t have anything to do with that. I just needed to understand more about where I was born.
Because of my parents’ warnings, I was suitably paranoid and expected to be constipated for the duration of the visit. I lucked upon a great program, Tagalog-On-Site, that encompassed language, literature, history, and politics. It was geared towards students who wanted to understand the American influence in the Philippines. The classes covered topics from the American colonial period, the U.S. military presence from World War 2 and beyond, and the continued affects of globalization on the islands. I thought it a socially progressive program, my Dad called it leftist.
An added incentive to the Tagalog-On-Site program was its location near the University of Philippines, Los Banos campus. If Manila was equivalent to New York City than Los Banos was like Stamford, Connecticut, a low-key city with not a lot going on. It was the perfect, easygoing place to learn about Filipino me.
When I got to the Philippines, I saw that my classes were held in the middle of a suburban-style housing development that reminded me a bit of a neighborhood where I grew up in New Jersey, save for the tropical foliage. At the time, I had been very athletic and since there was no gym nearby, I decided I would wake up early and run in the mornings.
No one in the dorm was awake as I put on my sneakers and walked out. At home I ran or hiked in the woods of upstate New York and took the trails in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, so I thought the easiest thing to do was to run in the nearby Boy Scout preserve.
The plan sounded benign, boring even, except in the Philippines there are wild dogs that roam the streets. In the U.S. that wasn’t a hazard I thought about. I had done some hiking in Yosemite, so bears I feared. And in my head I played out that if any wild dogs were to chase me, I’d punch them in the nose like a bear. Or just figure it out.
Since this is my loopy longwinded story, now is the time I disabuse people of the notion that Filipinos eat dogs. We don’t. That’s a myth created at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. At the time the fair organizers thought it a great idea to have a pavilion that showed the savages of the Pacific. They flew in a bunch of Igarot tribesmen in their traditional loincloths to populate the village. In a stroke of idiocy, xenophobic organizers killed and captured dogs to give the tribesmen to eat. Hence the legend persists.
It wasn’t lost on me that morning of my maiden run that I might be the food, rather than the dogs. Would the dogs avenge the memories of those St. Louis pups? I immediately dismissed the thought because the dogs barely looked up as I ran by them. Perhaps they realized my scrawny body wouldn’t be as tasty as the leftovers from the suburban homes. They couldn’t be bothered to chase me.
So to the Boy Scout preserve I made my way. The heat of the day hadn’t yet settled in but I could feel the warmth of the sun through the treetops.
I should have been startled by the gentleman wearing a diaper. He appeared about 10 minutes into my run. About sixty or older, he was also carrying a naked baby. Visually, there was something off.
From what I could tell, the diapered man came from a grouping of shacks within the park. It isn’t uncommon for the poor in the Philippines to do without shoes or a change of clothes. In the slums, the shanties are made of wood, cardboard or metal. And some of the homes have no roofs. Basic amenities like electricity, water, and sewage are not taken for granted. Without a doubt, the poverty is desperate.
In the moment, I didn’t feel unsafe but I wasn’t going to linger. I acknowledged him with my eyebrows to which he responded in kind. It’s a Filipino style of greeting that I only lapse into when I’m around other Pinoys. And then I was off.
On my trip back to the dorm, I ran the same pathways, through the woods, and up on the sidewalk. I showered and made my way to breakfast where I sat with classmates.
Immediately a rash appeared on my legs, my arms, my body. Ged, one of the coordinators of the program, looked at me and asked what had happened. We were only supposed to speak in the Filipino language, and mine was somewhat rudimentary, so in a terrible pantomime I explained.
Ged turned to the others. Their faces, once happy and animated, turned grave. I wasn’t quite sure what they were saying but I could tell it wasn’t good.
“You’ll need to show me the route. We need to go back and you need to apologize to the dwarves, the wood spirits,” she told me in English for emphasis. At this point in my Philippine experience I didn’t know Ged very well. Her official Tagalog-on-Site biography informed she was well educated and was involved in some indigenous music groups. My interactions with her at that point had been pleasant. I had no reason to be suspicious of the resolution she proposed.
The Philippines is a faith-based country. The main religion practiced is Catholicism. Other forms of Christianity pervade and there is a strong Muslim contingent in the south. Many of the religious customs combine animistic concepts that date back around 1565, the pre-Spanish colonial period.
Growing up, my parents only told me about certain Filipino superstitions like repeating the Hail Mary prayer when driving next to a cemetery. They never mentioned wood spirits. But could it hurt to make the apology? At the time I was participating in many healing modalities, experiencing many spiritual/new-age activities, so I thought – why not?
At various locations in the preserve, Ged and I stopped. We placed rice and money on the ground as an offering of appeasement and I’d apologize. She told me, in the future, to avoid any mishaps to say, “step aside little dwarf” because they protected the forests. If I saw a little dirt-pile, that’s where they were. I didn’t say it aloud but thought, isn’t that an anthill? Yet, Ged’s conviction made me take it seriously.
We finally came upon the spot where I ran into the gentleman with the diaper. I recounted events. “Oh, did he look at you?” she asked. A worried look came over her face. ” Yes,” I responded and repeated the eyebrow salutation.
Ged asked everyone in the vicinity about the guy. “If we find him, let me do the talking,” she said. I wasn’t quite sure of her concern. Turns out, Ged thought the guy put a love spell on me! And she needed to reverse the magic.
Filipinos have a lot romantic, dramatic and not especially realistic notions about love. Ill-fated lovers often reunite in heaven after stormy relationships in their lifetimes. It hadn’t occurred to me that the old man put a spell on me. Why? Was it because I was passing through his neighborhood? I didn’t look especially glamorous. And he was carrying a baby so somewhere there was a woman, the mother of the baby, in his life. I suppressed my inclination to laugh at Ged’s suggestion.
Then there he was. This time he wore shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t see the baby. And I noticed he had bad teeth but a big grin as they talked. I think Ged said,” She’s a student from America. She doesn’t understand. She’s sorry. It won’t ever happen again.” The only word I understood was “po,” which adds formality to the Filipino language.
Confident that we had accounted for my running route, Ged and I headed back to the dorm and a day of classes. Although I was mentally calm, my body was on fire. The rash had spread all over. When was my repentance going to stick? Didn’t the money and food help? And it was clear, at least to me, I wasn’t under a love spell.
Despite all the effort, Ged took me to the university infirmary for an allergy shot. I couldn’t handle the itching. As much as I tried to embrace the superstitions in the moment, I just needed the medication. It was the Western antidote to my Eastern ills.
It seems as though everyone is talking about Michael Kimball and his new newly released novel, US. Sam Lipsyte calls Kimball a “Hero of contemporary fiction.” Blake Butler says US is one of only two books that ever made him cry. And Gary Lutz says that Kimball is “One of our most supremely gifted and virtuosic renderers of the human predicament.”
US might break your heart, but it’s a good kind of break-the kind that reminds you how nice it is to be alive.
I just caught some kind of sickness and had to play a concert. My voice kind of went out halfway through the show. After the show, I arrived at Houston airport at 1 a.m. My flight is at 7a.m. Good times…
Throwing up through my fingers in Sunday school class with my hands over my mouth, trying to stop the vomit. My efforts were unsuccessful.
I do think there’s an epidemic of seriousness in books on spirituality. Or perhaps “formality” is an even better way to put it. The side effect of this is often a lack of accessibility as well as lack of applicability to “real” life. If you’re not going to wear a robe and meditate in a cloistered temple for the rest of your life, what is one to do with many of the teachings out there?
It reminds me of a funny picture you may have seen. It’s of a bunch of Buddhist monks in robes riding on a rollercoaster. Their arms are tossed up in the air and they have terrified looks on their faces. And that’s Pass The Jelly — what happens when you toss people out of the temple? What spiritual concepts actually hold-up in our everyday lives? It’s a lot easier to appear “enlightened” when you don’t have a job, a spouse, kids, don’t interact with the craziness of the “real” world or pay the rent.
I like to think that by the end of the rollercoaster ride, half the monks want to run back to the temple and the other half are running to get in line for another ride. Pass The Jelly is written in the spirit of those monks who want another ride in “real” life.
The characters I encounter in Pass the Jelly are ordinary people living their ordinary lives in extraordinary ways — people like Mr. Gooch or Little Joe. There’s a lot of wisdom in the places they’ve come to, but they’re ordinary places.
It goes back to bringing some concepts out of the temple and into the light of day. There’s a lot of dogma and semantic baggage around the word “enlightenment,” so I felt “ordinary enlightenment” might clarify things a bit.
I mean that our suffering in life often comes from assuming certain things to be true that upon investigation turn out to be completely false. There is great benefit in recognizing “what is,” but one must first see through “what is not” before one can truly reside in “what is.” Once you can see through “what is not,” the “what is” of life can be very joyful.
It’s part of breaking down the seriousness of it all and creating a space where people can really engage with the ideas. Laughing, and laughing at ourselves, is actually a pretty good starting point for self discovery.
I’ve been thrilled that Pass the Jelly has appealed to such a wide range of people, and on different levels. Maybe it’s because the human condition is, naturally, universal, so you don’t have to be a serious spiritual seeker to enjoy the book. So, whether it’s the refreshing insights or the laughs along the way, I’m glad people seem to be enjoying the ride.
Hopefully, Pass The Jelly adds a bit of wisdom and laughter to your life.
All the best,
In a fitting bastardisation of astrophysics, the sun rose on the British colonial interest in the West, and finally set on it in the East, more than 800 years later. The first instance of English Crown control in Ireland in the late 1100s was the first step on the grand march towards, ‘The British Empire’—an endeavour later re-branded, ‘Globalisation’.
Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.
Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.
They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “
You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.
“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”
No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”
Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.
We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?
A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?
What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.
We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.
In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”
When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”
Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.
And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).
Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr
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.
I’ve been noticing with greater and greater alarm that atheism is getting more and more popular in literary and academic circles. In fact, the majority of writers and scholars believe that anyone who believes in God must be naive and stupid. You aren’t smart enough, aren’t sophisticated enough to realize that God doesn’t exist and that life is pretty much shit. As the old saying goes, misery loves company. Now I don’t claim to be some highfalutin intellectual (fingers corn cob pipe thoughtfully for effect) but my great grand-daddy left me with at least this much sense: anything that makes you miserable ain’t all that good.
What an assumption! I know, right? I’m just as sure that all atheists aren’t miserable as I am that all believers aren’t happy. However, I can honestly say from experience that many (not all) of my atheist friends seem to wear their unhappiness like a badge. They consider their terrible lots in life to be irrefutable proof of how “real” they are. This is an old idea really, suffering being equated with authenticity. As a survivor of many forms and flavors of abuse, I personally think there is nothing noble about suffering, especially when it’s self-induced. It just sucks.
I see the core of this issue as being about the concept of newness, modernity. The idea of God is ancient, so it’s not cool anymore. Cool or not, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it. At some point in time if I shit on a canvas I might have gotten a gallery show because it was new, but that wouldn’t mean I’m a better artist than someone who could actually paint. For God’s sake people, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you believe there are some things that endure the test of time than who better than the G-O-D?
The literary and academic worlds are supposed to be a haven, a forum for all thoughts and ideas so what’s up with all this judgment? I’ve heard intellectuals call religious people closed-minded but isn’t it just as closed-minded to say something definitely doesn’t exist as it does? I think of the professor who has the courage, yes the courage to believe in a higher power, and the subtle and maybe not-so-subtle flak he/she might take from his/her co-workers, and it makes me sick. But not too sick because like time, God heals all wounds. Awesome.
I guess this is just another case of the old pendulum swinging back the other way again. Once upon a time people were crucified for not believing, now things have reversed and the faithful are ostracized for believing. See? I could have used the word “crucified” but no, I’m not some crazy, religious nut. Nor do I think I am right. I just think God exists insomuch as you let God exist, so hey, maybe it’s a good idea to try cracking the window open a little now and then, eh? I believe in spirituality more than some bearded, old, moody, white man in the clouds, and that spirituality has organically lead me to believe that if there wasn’t some kind of divine goodwill out there, that shit would be a lot worse than it is now. If you think that makes me crazy, well then put me in a sundress, slap my ass and call me Sally, I’m crazy.
Let me just anticipate one question: How can I believe in a God, all-knowing and all-powerful, when everything is so terrible? Well, sorry to bum out your bummers folks, but things are actually pretty good. Ah, I can almost feel the screams of protest! Why look at healthcare and Iraq and the corporations and all that. Terrible situations, agreed, but guess what, it could be a lot worse. The U.S. is a culture of complaints for which I partially blame Jerry Seinfeld and his weak, Satanic little observations, as well as a sensationalist, emotion-preying media. No, the sad truth for anyone out there addicted to the victim identity is this: everything’s okay. Life is hell only insomuch as you let it be. And I really think that is a significant part of people’s problem with faith; if there is a God than woah, what do you know, things might actually be alright.
The fact is that if I were to publicly announce that things are actually okay in some of the more popular intellectual hangouts (coffee shops, bookstores, etc), I would probably be verbally abused. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if the sexual practices of my own dear, sweet mother were called into question. My own flesh and blood mother, the very woman who brought me into this precious, wonderful world. Think about that a second.
Janeane Garofalo is almost 45 years old and wants you to know, “I don’t give a shit. I’ve mellowed.” We’re seated in one of L.A.’s most popular vegetarian restaurants, but I can’t give its location lest it becomes less popular. Nevertheless, Garofalo seems at ease with the diners trying to figure out just who she is, but she has an answer for that. “The Truth About Cats and Dogs,” she says. Why? “Because I don’t believe in having pets, but beyond that, it was a slam at me, a typical role. I was the dog. And the only reason the guy fell in love with me was my personality. Yeah, right. That’s a bunch of fucking bullshit. Never happens. You see me with Brad Pitt? No, I’m eating with an unknown writer and watching people trying to remember having watched The Truth About Cats and Dogs. And to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.”
It had been a long night in Madrid, but I didn’t anticipate seeing the sun so soon. I had no watch and had thought that while I knew I had been out late, it couldn’t have been sunrise. I danced with friends at a club, a number of clubs, but I left after a meaningless lover’s quarrel with my girlfriend at the time, the kind that occurs after couples are separated from each other for a length of time, yet remain still in the same place.
Outside, a soft breeze made everything around me seem lighter, more fragile. I felt like I could topple over city blocks by just leaning on one of their buildings. Passing Madrid’s Arc de Triomphe, I thought about how much smaller it looked than the one in Paris. Was it actually bigger, or was it some trick of product placement on Napoleon’s part? I was happy to be outside the pulsing and suffocating atmosphere of the dance club. Next to the Arc de Triomphe was a small park with pear trees. I had never eaten a fruit right off of the tree and thought I might try it, but the idea of biting into a worm disgusted me. I wasn’t sure if pears were ever possessed of worms, but I knew that apples sometimes were, from those images in picture books you see as a child. I decided against eating a pear and instead sat under one of the pear trees for a while, smoking, aware of everything important and thinking of nothing.
The sun began to rise and I felt a touch of anxiety that comes with knowing you have so much day in front of you. I have always hated taking in the sunrise, because I know I am either up too early, or out too late. I began to walk back to my apartment building near the Cuatro Caminos, a part of town mostly inhabited by students and younger families. I wasn’t tired yet and it was a pleasant walk, for the most part. Occasionally a group of drunken teenagers would set upon me like harmless ghouls, asking for money or making fun of me for being a foreigner. I laughed awkwardly at myself with them and nodded in agreement when they would persistently ask if I knew Michael Jordan or The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I came to a crosswalk and noticed a man with a cane standing toward the side of the street he intended, I thought, to cross. The sign indicating it was okay to pass flashed and still the man had yet to cross the street. I arrived at the crosswalk as the light had just turned to red and although there were no cars at any of the intersecting streets, I stopped anyway. I stood next to the man at the corner a few moments before I realized he was blind. The man turned toward me; he had no sunglasses on and I could barely see the outline of his iris or pupil through the gauze of his cataracts. His eyes were two small pebbles drowned in saucers filled with milk.
“Did I just miss the light?” he asked. He dressed nicely, as all old Spanish men do. He wore a blue pinstriped suit with a somber black tie over a starched white shirt. His face had succumbed to gravity, but there was youthfulness to it.
“I’m sorry?” I said. I had, and still have a hard time understanding questions in Spanish, when I’m not sure they’re coming.
“I missed the light, didn’t I?” he asked again, patiently.
“Oh, yes, I think you just missed it. I missed it too,” I assured him.
“We’ll get the next one,” he said, smiling.
“Yes, we will. Besides, you can never be too careful.” The man looked perplexed. I’m sure I had translated myself poorly. “It’s good to be careful,” I tried again.
“Yes, it is.” He smiled at me again. “You’re up early.”
“No,” I admitted. “I’m out late.”
“Ahh-yahh. You sound young. Where are you from?”
“I’m American.” He coughed, covering his mouth and gave a nod. We waited a few moments and the light flashed again.
“Let me help you,” I said, putting my arm in his and leading him gingerly out onto the crosswalk. Another pack of teenagers bounded by next us shouting something either at him or me or both of us. We reached the other side of the street and I unlocked my arm from his.
“Thank you, son,” he said.
“You’re very welcome.” The man gently put his hand on my shoulder and asked,
“What is your name?”
“Is that an American name?.”
“I think so.
“Sr. Ignacio Galban,” he said, extending a withered blue hand. His flesh had thinned and a geometry of veins overwhelmed it. “It’s a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is mine,” I said. “Take care.” Such exchanges are not uncommon in Spain. The simplest interaction often results in a formal exchange of names, geography, how the day is going and almost always, the soccer scores from the previous day. I felt a sense of satisfaction in helping an old, blind man across the street—the iconography is as familiar to me as the worm in the apple.
Should I keep walking toward my apartment to resume the argument with my girlfriend, or continue up Cuatro Caminos to nearby Retiro Park? While I stood debating my next move, the old man turned in my direction and seemed to say, “Tyler, do you believe in God?” I was sure I had heard this incorrectly.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked in the exact tone as before.
“Yes,” I lied.
“That’s good. I do too.” I dreaded the inevitable offer of a “Jesus Saves” pamphlet, the lecture on the patience of Job, or a warning on the impending end of the world. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” the old man offered, cracking the corners of his dry mouth with a smile. I panicked. I recalled going to breakfast once with someone to whom I confessed my lack of faith, and receiving an excruciating, interminable sermon.
There are times when a person does something that they wouldn’t normally do. But then if you accept an invitation to do anything, at that moment it creeps into the category of something you would normally do.
“Do you like churros con chocolate?” he asked.
“Yes, yes I do.” I was hungry, but I don’t think that’s why I replied what I did.
“Have churros with me, then.”
“Alright,” I said. There was a small café just up the street and the old man led us to it. I mean that. He led us to it, although I did hold him by the arm as I had when we crossed the street. It could not have been later than 6:30 in the morning, but the café was heaving with people. We stood at the entrance to the café for an awkward moment until the old man instructed me to find us a table. I imagined how we must have looked walking into the café together, and I felt guilty because I was embarrassed, even more guilty because I had no reason to be. I found a table looking out toward the intersection and we sat down. The old man deftly placed his cane against the windowed glass of the café, hung his coat from his chair and slipped into his seat. When he was settled, I made my way up to the counter to order. In Spain, they have waitresses, but they never come. I ordered two cups of hot chocolate and a plate of churros to split. I should have gone back to the table, but I waited at the counter a few minutes until our food was ready. I carried two cups of hot, thick chocolate to our table, and a waitress followed languidly with the churros.
“Don’t eat all my churros, American!” the old man said with a laugh, pawing at the table. I set the plate of churros in front of him alongside his hot chocolate. He felt both items and smiled.
“I’ve never been here,” I said, trying desperately to avoid discomfort, hoping the old man would say something.
“It’s good,” he said, wiping a moustache of hot chocolate from his mouth. I dipped a long churro into my cup of hot chocolate and agreed with a nod. Embarrassed again, I agreed aloud, “It is good.” We ate and drank in silence for a minute or two until the old man looked up, rather, raised his head and said, “I’ve made you uncomfortable.” I felt horrible before and after I said it but I did. “A little.”
“I know,” he said, wiping another moustache of chocolate from his mouth. “I’m sorry I asked you if you believed in God.”
“It’s okay,” I said.” It’s just an odd question—only because it’s a dangerous one.”
He gave an odd smirk, “Why is that, you think?”
“What if I had said no,” I asked.
“I would have still invited you to have churros with me.”
“Do you ask everybody if they believe in God?”
“No, just today, I think.” His face grew somber and a tear welled up from one of those clouded eyes. “My wife died the other day, two days ago.” I felt horrible.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“She was old.”
“How long were you married?”
“Thank you for not asking me how she died.”
“You’re welcome.” He grabbed for his cane, made a frantic motion to get up, and stumbled over his chair. I caught his arm and helped him right himself.
“Will you do something with me,” he asked, picking up his jacket from the back of the chair. I stood up, nervous and without a clue what to say.
I led him out of the café, maneuvering through the customers who paid no attention to us. We stood silent on the street corner. The old man turned his head from side to side, I imagine just a pedestrian reflex we all get, whether we can see or not.
“Do you really believe in God?” he asked again.
“Yes,” I lied again.
“I don’t,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I asked, certain I had again mistranslated.
“I don’t believe in God. I never have.” He secured one arm under mine. “I feel like I should now.” The morning was coming along in swing; cars began to honk their horns, going somewhere.
“Why now, because of your wife’s death?” I couldn’t think of the way to say “your wife’s passing,” as I wanted to.
“Yes, I suppose. Even if I could still believe in her, it doesn’t help me. It fills me with more sadness.” I was more uncomfortable than I have ever been in my entire life.
“Do you want to know something?” he asked.
“They say that if you inhale forty breaths and then exhale them at the same pace you drew them, you will know death, you will know God You liberate the soul.”
“I don’t understand.” I said.
“Because you’re an American, or just because you don’t understand?”
“Maybe both.” He repeated what he had just said about the forty breaths and stopped his gait.
“No, no I understand what you said.”
“I can’t do it,” he said, defeated.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Draw the breath, the last one.”
“Maybe you don’t want to yet.” I wished I had gone directly back to my apartment. I might be in her good graces by now, making love, watching the day begin through a window.
“It seems I don’t,” he answered.
“Are you from Spain?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.
“Yes and no.”
“How is that?
“I fought in the war, the civil war. The one we lost. Franco’s stupid war—a stupid war filled with stupid hate. I fought for Spain, I fought like a dog for Spain. My parents, though, they were gypsies. From nowhere. Morocco. That is why I am not a Catholic.” He stared me in the face, he did, with those languid, baleful eyes. “You came from where tonight, Moncloa?”
“Along the street Isaac Perál?”
“You can still see the bullet-holes in the buildings. My friends died there. They had the luxury of God.”
“The luxury?” I asked.
“Somewhere to go. I have nowhere to go.”
“Everyone has somewhere to go,” I ventured, aching for the right word or words.
“Will you take me to confession?” the old man asked. As we walked along I drew breaths and exhaled them at what I thought to be equal intervals. I felt silly doing it, but I have found that whatever superstition is the most relevant or immediate, I, or almost anyone, will embrace it. I would stop at around thirty breaths, arresting the deadly cadence the old man had described. This is obscene and idiotic, I thought. But I did it.
“Confession?” I asked, knowing I had heard the old man correctly.
“Yes, doesn’t it help? Help with something?” I had never been to confession in my life, but I answered,
“Yes,” I said. “It ought to.”
“Will you take me to a church?” he asked. I stood scanning the streets, as aimlessly and as fruitlessly as he had earlier.
“Sure, let’s go to confession.” There are points of no return—this was one of them—and the prospect frightened me.
“Will you show me how?”
“I’ve never done it in Spanish.”
“You speak Spanish pretty well,” he said.
“I don’t know la liturgia,” I guessed at the word.
“I’ll tell them what we’re there for,” he said. I remembered there was a church a few blocks north of my apartment, next to a veterinary clinic. We walked in silence, our arms intertwined. The whole time I repeated the breathing exercise that led to death, to God, stopping just short of thirty-five this time around. I wondered if he did, too. His breathing was heavy and disconcerting. I didn’t feel like counting anymore. We passed the veterinary clinic and turned up a small side street, I can’t remember the name. As we approached the church, I smelled shit.
“I smell shit,” the old man said.
“I do too.” I looked at my shoe and I had stepped in a pile of it, it was all over my shoe. “It’s me,” I admitted.
“That I stepped in shit?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s good. That’s good luck. Here in Spain.” The church was open and we walked in. While I hadn’t ever been to confession, I was familiar with the protocols of entering a Catholic church. I dipped my hand in the holy water and crossed the old man with my index and middle fingers. He seemed pleased. I dropped 100 pesetas in the donation box and had the old man hold up a candle that I lit with my lighter. I craved a cigarette all of a sudden, as I realized (and felt) I’d been without one for almost two hours. I hadn’t the slightest idea of how to enlist a priest for confession, so I led the old man to the very back pew, took his cane, and helped him out of his jacket. We knelt without bowing. I didn’t pray and he didn’t know how. A priest appeared out of the dimness to light candles in front of a mural depicting the Gift of the Magi. I told the old man to wait and he nodded in silence, kneeling devoutly the whole time, his head still facing forward. I approached the priest and asked him if we could make confession. “Both of you, correct?” the priest asked.
“I guess so. I mean, yes.” I felt disrespectful. It seemed that in a sacred place, “I guess so” is a ridiculous thing to say. The priest motioned for me to escort the old man to the confessional. I confessed first; the old man insisted. I began in Spanish, but I didn’t know how to begin in Spanish or English.
“Say it in English, I speak English,” The priest said. This was worse. I knew to say, ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned . . . but then what?’
“Just talk to me,” the priest said. So, I confessed everything in recent memory that had offended me about myself, which I assumed would have also offended God. The priest listened well. I felt comfortable. Contrary to what I had seen in movies and read in books, I wasn’t instructed to say a Hail Mary or an Our Father. The priest, I thought rather strangely, thanked me. I waited for a moment, but he said nothing else, so I left the confessional and sat back down. The priest then spoke with the old man, and lead him to another confessional. I wonder how much the priest listened to me. I’d like to think he took it in.
While I waited for the old man to finish his confession, I walked around the church, admiring the stained glass. The Virgin has always fascinated me, and I stood looking at a window depicting her with the dead Christ, “La Pieta,” is the only expression I know for that image. I was still standing there, when the old man, led by the stone-faced priest, touched my shoulder gently.
“We can go,” the old man said. I nodded to the priest and he nodded back. I led the old man out of the church and out the door into the light of day. I was very close to home and I didn’t know what exactly to say to the old man.
“That was interesting,” he said.
“It was,” I agreed. “Very.”
“You don’t believe in God,” he said.
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“I don’t either.” He smiled toward me and swiveled his blind eyes, again, about the neighborhood, the city, the world. The jowls rose on his face and I saw a smile appear.
“I hope that was comforting, or helpful,” I said.
“It was,” he said. “Now I can go home to breathe.” I tensed up and again, felt uncomfortable.
“Breathe as I do.” I asked the old man if I could pay for his taxi fare, flag him a taxi. He agreed and I saw one right away and hailed it. The taxi stopped and I led the old man, my arm intertwined with his, into the backseat. I gave the driver 2000 pesetas and asked for his car number, just in case. The old man crumpled into the backseat and let out a sigh. He turned his head in my direction and nodded politely. I nodded back at him and closed the door. The taxi left around the corner of the side street and down Cuatro Caminos. I walked back in full daylight toward my apartment, smoking.