Imagine, a picture to disrupt the text like a breach in typography for ruins wasteful entrance.
Although most of the bleary-eyed humans that gather at the dog-park in the early morning perceive only a maelstrom of fur running to-and-fro, a blur of legs and tails that stops now and again for the occasional crotch-sniff, shit, and a usually frustrated attempt at sexual intercourse, on some mornings the curious occurs almost unnoticed amidst the quotidien.
When my dog and I arrived this morning, a collection of the neighborhood Basenjis was involved in a discussion about the appropriate level of involvement, for a Basenji, within the political environment in which they live. I am suspicious of Basenjis. They have a certain smugness that makes me leery. Their peering eyes remind me of Caesar’s statement to Mark Anthony; “let me have men about me that are fat, sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights: yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”
“Because of the great influence that the United States has in the world,” began the tallest of the four Basenjis (his collar indicated his name was Larry), “the individual in the United States is perpetually called upon to respond to the actions of the state with a greater urgency than if he was living in a much smaller country with much less impact on world affairs.”
You can well imagine my reaction to hearing a dog instigate such a conversation at 8AM – there was a strong whiff of sanctimoniousness about the young pup that was only reinforced by the conceited way in which he tilted his head from side to side as he spoke.
Larry continued. “This feeling of responsibility is born out of a belief that in a democracy, everyone is responsible for what the state does in his name. One cannot escape moral responsibility through abstention. And so, as one becomes aware of illegitimate and cynical warfare, hypocritical attacks on animal rights, gross social injustice and non-collar political corruption, one feels called to don the helmet and grab the spear to defend the republic.”
I went through my daily to-do list on my cellphone. “Gather tax receipts. Set up my annual health-check for Friday. Fold in those edits from my editor. Call my mother. Get back to that guy in Paris.” I flicked to Twitter.
Basenjis rarely interrupt each other. They consider it rude. So when one of the four did just that I was surprised and lifted my head from news of the latest Israeli-settler encroachment into East Jerusalem. A big-shouldered one of the four, with a lazy eye interjected.
“But the United States today is not the democracy of such ideals, but a plutocracy in fact, in which the negotiations between the moneyed corporations and everyone else, consistently conclude in a resolution most favorable to the corporations. We live as second-class citizens and few things are as pathetic as someone donning armor to defend the circumstances of his own enslavement.”
And with that, the two other dogs sitting around him overlooked the interruption and nodded in unison. The Rude One continued.
“Those who believe in democracy today must live a schizophrenic existence, alternating between a feeling of responsibility for the actions of the state in which they live and an acute appreciation of their impotence to effect even the slightest change within that state.”
At this point my dog had passed a fine specimen in the corner of the park. I pulled on the long string of blue doggy bags, reflected on the lowliness of my station, and went to pick up the shit. I could feel the approval of my fellow dog owners. I was responsible. We were responsible. How great. We’re still all picking up shit. It was pungent, and in the early morning I forgot every thought I ever had, and tried not to gag. When I returned from the garbage pail, the Rude One was still at it.
“From the attempt at health-care reform, the bail-out, the corporate bankrolling of rabble-making media and compliant politicians – it seems apparent that the average American today stands in the same relation to his state as the average Indian once stood in relation to the British Empire. We are perpetually sold the American Dream, much as the great people of India were once told of their good fortune to be subjects of a foreign Queen.”
I’ve learned not to discount coincidences in the animal kingdom. They are often the result of a communication that one does not at first observe. For example, at the very mention of Old Vic, Harold, the fat-headed English bulldog came over and after what seemed like a gentle invitation to sniff, slobbered saliva all over the Rude One.
The Rude One stood there stoically, like a porn star in a bukakke film waiting for the camera to be turned off. Through the bulldog-saliva he continued.
“I am not making the equation between the American plutocracy today, and the British Empire, to incite a rebellion similar to that which brought the latter to an end.”
The English bulldog turned and plumply sat down nearby to observe the proceedings. He casually turned toward the Rude One, lifted his arse and farted. The Rude One rubbed a paw across his face to remove the saliva and continued.
“Our present is much more hopeless than India in the 1940s. The corrupting influence of corporate power on the hard-won rights and freedoms that ought to adhere in a democracy seems likely to only grow in breadth and in depth. One cannot help but think of the recent U.S. Supreme Court case unleashing the financial war-chests of corporations on our elections, as yet another beat in the quickening pace.”
There are a large number of lawyers in Washington DC which raises the frightening prospect that constitutional law textbooks are to be found throughout the city, even now, within easy reach of the average Jack Russell. I say this because at the very mention of the recent Supreme Court case, two French poodles, a miniature Schnauzer, an Irish Wheaten, a Chinese Shar-Pei and a Mexican Chihuahua all gathered around the Basenjis.
The Chihuahua dove right in even before it had found its seat in the widening circle. “Yep, yep, across the world, the great power of unregulated capital grows day after day and our ability to freely determine the terms under which we govern ourselves contracts in suspiciously equal measure.”
He turned his nose towards the Shar-Pei.
“Even China, the oft-cast great determiner of the coming century, will inevitably fall beneath the rod of global corporations engorged by access to its markets and those of India, and Indonesia.”
The Shar Pei sat silently, his eyes rolling slowly towards the English bulldog.
The Wheaten took up the baton, in a brogue that turned the heads of all the ladies.
“The ‘Government Affairs’ departments of corporations that today trade beef for pork in the restaurants of Washington DC will tomorrow do likewise in Beijing, Bombay and Jakarta. I can see no brakes, no checks-and-balances, no barriers that might impede this march. I see no great social awakening in the centuries ahead as China and India take time to learn the lash of the whip, for three centuries of the whip in the United States has failed to provoke any effective counter-reaction. Even that measure of social-security we won in Europe today is being gutted by the requirement that we bend the knee to the international financial markets.”
I must say I was surprised to see one of the French poodles intervene, because, well, I think everyone will agree that poodles are seldom interested in politics. Nonetheless, one of the tall svelte French hounds stepped forward with a natural elegance that reminded me somewhat of Kristin Scott Thomas. The other stood there motionless and vacant.
“These international markets, unhinged from any regulatory body that would protect non-market values such as democracy will always sniff out the poor and the desperate jurisdiction and reward them for lowering their standards for health, environment, dog-biscuits, safety, and in the end, equality. Now mind you, I say all of this while at the same time acknowledging the great benefits that corporations bring to life on earth. Never in history have so many been lifted out of poverty as in the last 20 years, due in great part to China’s embracing of capitalism.” At this point the Shar Pei turned to look at her, his eyes dropped to her tail with that look that even dogs clearly perceive to mean nothing other than: “great ass.” She continued obliviously and turned her nose in the direction of the English bulldog; “I just reject the idea that we have to choose between a vibrant economy and a democracy.” The English bulldog adjusted himself again. And farted.
It was some measure of how interesting all of this was becoming to me that I ignored the various pings of my cellphone notifying me of to-do items, calendar appointments and morning emails. So engrossed had I become, that I did not notice that my own dog had since circled the park and now walked from behind me into the center of this impromptu congress. His languid walk was in such contrast to the heightened and almost shrill air that was consuming the participants, that he stopped the conversation cold. He sat in the middle of the group. Silently. He repositioned his legs, which were often stiff in the mornings due to arthritis. He stared at each in turn.
“This then is our predicament,” he began. There was a silence that soon become awkward. The dogs began to stare from one to the other.
“We sit here torn between impotence and a refusal to surrender. Existentialism,” he nodded towards the French poodle (she seemed flattered), “sits like a box of Christmas decorations ready to bedeck such frustration in baubles and tinsel so that we may think of it as noble. But even amidst the joy of Christmas morning, every Christmas tree knows that it is dying. That it has been hacked from its mother.”
Good metaphor, boy!
“There seems to be no answer other than to start with that which we know to be true – that even as we sit here we are each of us passing, and that all things, will in turn follow each of us to the grave. Much as those who are nervous about speaking in public are encouraged to imagine their audience wearing business suits, it centers us, does it not, in such times as these to imagine the inevitable truth that everything we know will pass and, in the extreme, that even the great and beautiful Mother Earth on which we shit, will at some point in time leave nothing but a cosmic echo of where she once existed.”
Two dog-treats when we get home. At least.
The wide-open almost teary eyes of every dog were at this point transfixed on this mysterious old one with his peculiar accent and smelling of the most pungent piss they had ever experienced. Feeling now that the fat silence confirmed that they like he stood in the same awe before this imagined moment, he continued.
“I rise from such dark depths like a Newfie from the sea gasping for air. The affairs of state, my status as a member of what is called a democracy, are in that moment clearly secondary. My essence is that I live, that I breathe, that I inhale, that I experience what it feels to be alive. All these affairs, that the bounty of youth affords you time to consider, are but adjectives. To allow them to consume you is to allow them to become you. You must always remain wild and un-collared in your heart.”
A woman in a pair of pink pajama pants, with the word “Dartmouth” festooned across her not insubstantial backside, bent down and plucked the Chihuahua from the circle. This rude awakening broke the mood and seemed to remind each in turn that the day was upon us. My dog walked nonchalantly towards me, stopped and stared, waited. He sniffed the leg of the bench and almost imperceptibly tried to lift his own. All I could see was a faint trickle of piss. I put him on his leash, turned off my phone, and we headed home, slowly.
I find myself feeling awkward, which is a good thing, because it means something new is happening. About two weeks ago I discovered the teachings of an intelligent and sincere Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast. The level at which he interprets religious traditions, confirmed a line of thought that I’ve left untended for a while.
As best as one can determine anything through the use of one’s senses, I have observed effects that suggest to me that I have a spiritual component. I would not describe the evidence as absolutely confirming the fact, but more like the evidence suggesting that exercise is good for me. When I think of myself in a spiritual way, when I make decisions taking how it affects my spirit into account, or I engage in a spiritual exercise, whether it is meditation, visiting a place of contemplation, regardless of the religious tradition, or simply walking in a forest, I feel better, much better. When I do not take that sensitivity into account, I feel worse. That’s the phenomenon.
I am quite willing to accept the idea that my reaction is simply a learned response. I am willing to accept that it is merely the internal manifestation of a behavior implicitly prescribed by my culture, i.e. that the image of the Buddha, or a quiet church in the middle of the day, or the silence of a forest, is so commonly thought to induce a sense of peace, that it does – a placebo effect if you will. Assuming that that is true, it is barely relevant. I am going to die soon. This prioritizes the good, once it doesn’t cost too much, over the perfect.
My perspective is that the well-known religions of the world are interwoven with the fallible and corrupting influences of their having, over centuries, become tools with which the powerful control the less organized. And you can see this in every religion. At some point, the spiritual practice leaves the womb and becomes tainted with the political desires of a temporal power. But within each of the world’s religions, there is an awareness of man’s spiritual capacity and how that needs to be managed, and most exciting, how it can be grown. Thus, beneath all the mumbo-jumbo, there is a very useful skill. It is as if all the medical doctors in the world were also religious priests, who, in addition to knowing the workings of the human body, also babbled on about absolute nonsense. Before we rightly throw away all the mumbo-jumbo, I would like to identify and preserve that medical knowledge for future use. Similarly, before throwing out the superficial trappings of commonly practiced religions, I’d like to go into their most refined learnings and ask – what in there is useful? What did they know about how the human animal works? For example, all mystic traditions suggest that a human being can enjoy a higher and more sustainable level of happiness when he ceases to weigh every event in life against his own egotistical desires. When I’ve practiced this idea, I experience an enjoyable peace. So I am going to do it again. Interesting and useful insights like this, that do not require one to believe in six impossibilities before breakfast, can be found in the more universalist writings of mystics within every religious tradition in the world. They represent centuries of work-product by some very intelligent individuals. It is simply ignorant inefficiency to cast-out these notes because of a refusal to apply one’s own intelligence in such a way as to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I started this note by saying that this line of thinking felt awkward, and here is why. I support the New Atheist agenda to spread the light of rationalism into the dark corners of religiously motivated ignorance, whether it be the lunatic-fringe in the American Evangelical Christian tradition or the religiously sanctioned misogyny of fundamentalist Islam. But, as described above, I also believe man has a spiritual component. This is sometimes difficult for my fellow atheists to accept. But even more so, the idea that the great demon of organized religion might have anything of value for a rationalist buried within its hulking mass. As I try to make this point in conversations, perhaps less fluently than I have hopefully managed to do here, I find myself coming away frustrated that secularists are usually as guilty of interpreting religion at the same imbecile level as those they perceive as backward.
There is a great danger in denying the spiritual aspect of man. By doing so we deny him the tools to manage a potentially dangerous desire that those of insincere intent are only too willing to exploit. The primary nefarious actor I have in mind is consumerism, which today offers to feed man’s undiagnosed spiritual needs while starving him at every step. As has been observed by the famous thinkers of the Left, having satisfied our basic needs for food, shelter and a modicum of security and health, corporations in the developed world can now only grow by creating new needs in an already fattened population. They do this largely by targeting man’s unsatisfied spiritual longings with disingenuous offerings of Elysian peace and transcendence beyond the limitations of our individual capabilities. The luxury-goods industry offers the least subtle examples. It promises to transform us, in effect, into gods, if only we buy the most expensive cars, jewelry, cologne, clothes, etc. I see this as the great evil in the society in which I live. It enslaves us, divides us, makes us profoundly unhappy because of what we sacrifice to pay for these baubles, and moves us further away from a more sustainable happiness. And it is not even the fault of corporations, they are merely the drug dealers of a vice we refuse to refuse. But if we do not recognize our spirituality, if we do not entertain it as a variable which must be weighed, we rob ourselves of even the language with which to diagnose our own addiction.
Alas, it has been my experience that the discovery of spiritual treasures cannot be a social exercise. Humans in groups seem incapable of avoiding the wrestle of egos, the insistence on one-upmanship. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. I differ with the words of Jesus – wherever two or three are gathered, the spirit is invariably not among them. Maybe this will change for me someday, I hope it will, but for now it seems impossible to grow uncorrupt flowers of spiritual refinement in a social environment. It seems to me that it can only be done in the private cloister of one’s own mind, in a place beyond words. I think the range of tools found in the mystic traditions of the world’s religions may afford some that are of use. But the process of discovery is a solitary one. All that is common is the need.
I’ve been frustrated by food writing for quite some time. In a single sentence, my frustration is that food writers don’t write in such a way that helps their readers to learn.
The internet has been a huge asset to food lovers everywhere and it has continued the trend, started by media outlets such as the Food Network, towards an ever more popular appreciation of food. This in turn has led to an increase in the quality of food and a more widespread understanding of the sociological, political, economic, ethical and cultural environments in which food as a human activity finds context. But the manner in which food writers write leaves a greater potential for growth untapped.
My understanding is, and my own personal experience seems to support this opinion, that the brain learns by adding new information to a structure that it already knows. Imagine then, if you will, a process whereby I take a child, that has lived in cave for all of its short life, outside for a few seconds everyday over several years. I show him the sky at 10AM and say “this is day.” I take them outside at 11PM, point to the darkness and say “this is night.” The process goes on ad infinitum with the child gathering snapshots of varying degrees of light and darkness, and associating them with either day or night. Obviously, the child at some point is going to encounter problematic periods, such as the break of dawn or twilight and it will try its best to categorize these periods as either day or night. This crude example is an attempt to illustrate what I call the “Sampling Approach.” It takes quite a long time and even if the child can remember all of these samples, its learning is still quite rough. By contrast, suppose if I explain to the child the process whereby night becomes day, how the sun rises in the East, makes its way across the sky and finally sets in the West. When the sun is in the sky it is day and when it is not it is night. Armed with this 5 second conversation, the “Reasoned Approach,” the child can leave the cave, look at the sky and not only determine whether it is day or night but also determine based on the sun’s position what time of day it is. It can clearly distinguish the nebulous period of dawn from that of twilight.
Much of food writing follows the Sample Approach. For example, I love sushi. I’ve probably eaten more than my fair share. I’ve read about it, watched hundreds of people on television eat it, but I still have only a vague idea as to what makes for truly excellent tuna. Of course it should be fresh, and the color is important, and I can tell what I think is a better texture. But no one has ever sat me down and said something to the effect that; “when you taste tuna, first look at it closely, you are looking for _[?]__, then when you taste it, better tuna should be more like __[?]___.” Instead I just read and see one food commentator after another saying “that’s awesome tuna” but with no instruction as to what are the tell-tale sensations that denote that quality. Now of course I could go and do a food course. But food writers are already talking to the finest chefs in the world, they eat in the best restaurants – why can’t they ask these chefs what their criteria is for determining high quality sushi, compare it with what other chefs say, and then tell me? (Needless to say, I have a suspicion that the reason this does not happen, is because a lot of people in the food industry are simply faking it. I eat therefore I write). It is in the interest of good chefs to elaborate how they measure quality. I can get bad tuna in lots of places, but if you teach me what good tuna is, and you are one of the few who has it, I’ll visit your restaurant. Leave me in ignorance and I’ll plod to the place around the corner. Bad restaurants live, good restaurants die. I keep on plodding.
I’ve expressed this opinion before and one of the responses I get is that there shouldn’t be an elite that tells people what is good and what is not good food. This completely misses the point and fails to engage my point in the reasonable center in which it is being advocated. I am not proposing that an elite tell people what is good (e.g. “Tuna from the Tasmanian Sea is the best”) but that people be given tools that they can use to measure what is good (e.g. “good tuna should have no smell and a light red luminescence due to the presence of ___ which declines as the tuna ages”). Once I have this structure to work with, I can then eat tuna and decide do I like what others consider to be good tuna? I can begin to tag my experiences eating tuna with useful metadata that helps me to grow in my knowledge and enjoyment of the food I am eating. I can begin to sort restaurants and chefs in an intelligent way. I can begin to refine the rule, interconnect it with other rules (e.g. fresher tuna is better with a more subtle sake) etc.
Now what would be thrilling about the net-effect of a move from the current Sample Approach to what I’m calling the Reasoned Approach is the impact that it would have on our food culture. Imagine if hundreds of thousands of foodies armed with these Reasoned Approaches ignited an ever-improving eco-system of better and better restaurants. Imagine how these reasoned approaches bubbling up to the surface, in a process akin to what we see in the world of open-source software, would create a cultural inheritance that could be added to, day after day, year after year and generation after generation. It would very quickly drive charlatans into the light and recognize and reward the true chefs, the true keepers of the flame of quality, nuance, honesty and integrity. In a traditional culture, these rules are passed from one generation to the next. A few bright-line rules delivered to me squarely in a vineyard during my youth helped me to appreciate wine more than years of watching quaffers on television. Because of the wonderful diversity of our culinary traditions in the United States, in this culture that role of observing, documenting, preserving and communicating falls to the food-writer. The challenge of course is that this will require food writers to do more work. Their writing must move from impressionist stories that feature food to reasoned arguments as to why the steak, tea, wine or stout, at a certain restaurant or bar is on the better end of the spectrum. But this discipline will over time give them an admirable cogency that will benefit them individually as well as the rest of the community.
And so, to the extent that anyone is listening, I’d like food writers to think about this. And more than that I would like them to start adopting a mental process when they begin to write of asking – what tool can I give the reader to help them appreciate better steaks, better cupcakes, better wines, Indian Pale Ales etc. Start your articles, books etc. by stating the standard, and then tell me how this particular experience compares to that standard and why. Feel free to describe two standards, or variations due to geography. But give it structure. I am not (and I feel I may have to repeat this) calling for “thou-shalt-nots” but I am asking for “it’s-often-better-ifs.” Structured in this way, the articles will begin to accumulate over time into a body of work that I think any writer looking back on his life will proudly be able to say – “that’s my contribution, that’s how I tried to help.” The alternative notion, that somehow everyone is remembering an opinion here on a particular set of facts, and another one there on a different set of facts, and another tip from this friend of mine who went to Napa once, is just a delusion. It’s an Emperor’s-Clothes scenario that better minds ought to leave behind. No one is remembering any of that unstructured random information in a useful intelligent way. It’s just not how our brains work. People have busy short lives. Food writers should try to help to make them more enjoyable. The net result will be better food for everyone now, and those to come.
Where he would die was a life-long obsession for Arthur Sand. He was at this point, half-way through that length of time that he knew, or at least had once read in an orphaned copy of the Economist at the airport in Atlanta, was typical for a Caucasian male in a developed country. He kept a record of the possibilities, and, on occasions of unbearable tedium such as standing in-line waiting for a flight to board, he would unfurl his map of ideal places to die and spread it before his mind’s eye. With relish, he would smoothen the imaginary creases, taking a moment to briefly review the folds for any signs of wear.
Typically, he would start his purview in the regimental chapel. Brass plates and torn flags. “Robert McKinley, born, Galway, Ireland, 12th Regiment, Irish Fusiliers, died Bengal. David MacCauley, born, Edinburgh, Irish Guard, died Natal, South Africa.” During the weekend mornings, before the artisans gathered in the market outside, he would stand alone in the three-naved chapel. The floor was covered with remnants of medieval gravestones, names slowly worn away by visitors. “Connor de Burgh, 1714, late sheriff of this citiye, a widow’s son.” How beautifully still, summer light flowing through the large stained-glass rose-window. So many soldiers lying in such calm silence. It seemed unlikely. The stone knight lay in full-repose, clutching his petrified sword. What did these dead men feel here in the loamy deep rich moist soils of home? Did they replay memories of India? Visions of magnificent Afghan warlords seen for the first time through the sights of their muskets? Did a pair of green eyes beneath a veil in Peshwar now and forever haunt their thoughts? How could they bear it then, to be buried here within earshot of all they knew, remembering all that they had found?
Calling groups 2 and 3.
He ran his finger across the dry paper, delighting in the thoughts of geography and adventure that trailed his gaze, like seagulls following a trawler at sea. Fiji. Self-conscious hesitation. Lapping, peaceful blue turquoise waters. He was not himself, but someone transmuted and free. He was nothing, owning nothing, receiving no communications and was clothed as befit the purpose of the day rather than for any care for typical customs or modesty. He was human with them, and after all these years, he was now sure that they too were so with him. They sat surrounding. His aged and failing mind would play with the words of his mother tongue, long since resigned to use merely as a type of music. E-l-a-b-o-r-a-t-e. P-o-l-y-d-a-c-t-y-l. He would laugh at puns that only he could understand, some more humorous than others. Now they laughed too. Men emerging from the sea between his eyelids. A-m-p-h-i-b-i-a-n. The taste of fresh sea-urchin soaked in Vanderford’s orange juice. V-a-i-n-g-l-o-r-i-o-u-s. Perhaps he had helped these people in some way during his life. Perhaps they had come to love him. Perhaps, on this day, they would flood the small harbor with dugouts, bellow into a great conch-shell and scatter on the sea the ashes of one who had known the full bargain of their friendship and family. The sea!? No, not the sea – how irreversible! No, in the palm-grove on the bluff, where one can look out to sea and watch the world from afar. Perhaps catch a ship forever on the horizon. And yet, amid more than his fair share of beauty, he was so far from home. He felt disloyal to the graves of those from whom he had begot.
He was certain that one location was surely so awful, the manner of the passing there so ignoble that it could not be endured. The horror of it in fact had given birth to his map. Manhattan. In his life, he had lived there for a while and indeed quite liked it, with mixed feelings, as with anything. It was one of the few places in the United States where he felt he did not have to apologize for thinking. And yet, perhaps born out of this peculiarity, it seemed now to his older mind a town full of conceit, smugness, and the typical adolescent pretensions and affectations of those who do not yet realize they are about to die. It happens in a kitchen in an atomistic apartment with a large and intentionally de-personalizing number. 5603. “Oh, the man in 5603 died,” she would say returning to bed on a Saturday morning, firm-breasted and young, reading the obituary. The television would almost immediately quench their memories of him with a warning on the importance of being regular. Days before, he had been lying on the floor, unable to move, listening to them fuck while he waited. “J G Wentworth. Mattress-discounters. Cialis. This is unlike any computer we’ve ever made before. In a sense it’s not a computer at all. It’s you. Get the channels you want, when you want them. Have you been injured in a workplace accident?” He had never felt sufficiently at home in that apartment to want to change the kitchen-cabinets. And now those cabinets were the only witnesses to his departure. Too much fucking beige.
Please turn off all electrical devices at this time.
Would America ever do? Perhaps the Rockies, but he had never been. He had seen photographs and films and the vast expanses of pristine untouched nature seemed sufficiently beautiful to warrant his last breath. Upwards, peaks, clean, majestic, undisciplined, devoid of advertising. Perhaps there was a sunlit glade, the seasons passing quietly by. The nights still and filled with constellations, tales of Araby? Perhaps a camper would light a fire nearby and read aloud from Thoreau or Whitman. That would be a pleasant evening. Maybe? America, – such a strange land. Imagine being tied to its disappointments forever. No doubt they would find some ingenious double-talking way to screw it all up. I couldn’t bear to have to watch them beggar themselves with progress and be unable to leave. A drill-bit mangling through my bones, some plaid-bellied foreman bending down to toss my skull aside. Farting. And yet perhaps they wouldn’t, or perhaps the mountains would endure nonetheless as they had always done.
“Please fasten your seatbelt sir.”
“Oh I’m sorry.”
The plane taxied to the runway. Across the aisle there was a woman from India. She had a child with large brown eyes. She was beautiful.
The isolated mountains of Provence. Manon de Sources. Home of the Cathar heretics, the lethal pot-shot taking camaraderie of the Croix de Lorraine. Sunlight pouring through the open door of the farmhouse imperceptibly nestled among the cypress trees along a golden ridge.
The woman’s husband sat beside her. He was tall and disinterested, with that stern look that stupid people wear when they are trying to appear commanding.
Shelves lined with books and old friends. A wrought iron-bed. Fresh tomatoes left by the door by a friend. Tuesday. Ever the optimist. The birds outside in summer. He knew there was a half a bottle of rosé left in the fridge. Last week a letter, a paper letter.
The mother’s face was sweet and gentle. He thought what a waste for a woman like that to spend a lifetime with a man like him.
At this point this felt best. His spirit gently flowing from him, through the memories of laughing dinners on the terrace and out into a countryside devoid of modernity and soaked in history. He would feel the cloth sheets, old paper, warm stone, friendly timber, transcendent blue-green glass.
What a beautiful child.
The plane began to increase in speed. He secretly loved how the acceleration forced him back into the chair and then that ecstasy at takeoff. The lift beneath the wings. The moisture flickering violently on the window as if nature herself was shocked by such obscene acceleration. Suspended now, in the air, between points, beyond choice or control. He was smiling. His mind was silent. He closed his eyes.
She smelled of jasmine and something else.
“Can I stay?”
He leaned against the jam of the door. Tweed against timber. Behind him darkness. Despite all my thoughts, now was the moment of choosing. My heart was beating loudly in my chest. I looked back at the room, the artifacts of my domesticity. In that second, somebody else in me said yes. The barrel of the gun over his shoulder, kissed the doorway as he slipped inside. The door closed and locked.
We sat in the darkness, by the fire. His face wrapped in shadow. Periodically the embers, finding some fresh unconsumed part of the log, would momentarily cast a greater light that tried in vain to penetrate the shroud. I searched how to make conversation without questions. The silence grew uncomfortable. I reached to the table for the knife, and some bread.
The wind was picking up outside. I searched the trees, darker shades of black set against the navy sky, for unfamiliar patterns. I knew that he had not found my door by accident, that he had been brought here by desperation and opportunity, that there would be others. The walls blinkered my view. I thought to get to a vantage point, from the windows upstairs, but I could not leave him.
He ate the bread without butter. Dirt trapped under his fingernails.
“Are you healthy?”
My grandfather’s clock marked the hour, unconscious of the need for silence. Staring into the fire, each avoiding the gaze of the other. Time passing. He sat hunched over in the darkness.
I remember kneeling beside my mother in the church as a boy, sitting vigil at midnight mass as Christ waited in the garden for them to take him. So unusual, to a boy, seeing all those villagers there, kneeling in the darkness. A single candle, a black cloth draping the cross. Even the priest is silent. All I can hear is breathing, I cannot tell whether it is mine or that of others around me. Two-hundred of us. My mother’s fingers pass quietly across each rosary bead. Her lips moving slightly as she prays in her mind. She seems to begin each prayer with my inhalation. I could feel him among us. Fingers through beads. Waiting through time. I must be slipping in and out of consciousness, perhaps I am sleeping and awakening.
I became aware again of where I was. I got up quietly and went to the kitchen to fill the teapot. I realized too late that there was now nothing between him and the stairs. The familiar sound of water filling a teapot. I returned. He had not moved. The flames reoriented as I nestled the vessel among the embers. I could see a white bandage peer from beneath his over-sized coat.
“Let me see that.”
It began to rain outside. I untied his rags.
“It was just some barbed wire on the hills.”
In that moment I knew the path he had taken to my door. I knew the way he had come, why and who he was.
“Were you followed?”
“I don’t think so.”
There was no moon outside. The water in the teapot began to boil. I reached for the old tea-caddy and stirred in two spoons and lifted the pot off the fire.
“It’s fresh, but I should scald it.”
I poured the boiling tea over his hand. The blood and dirt mixed with it and poured among the ashes. He bit into his bearded lower lip and said nothing. I reached into the closet for old rags lost among knitting needles and fairytale books. One of the needles fell to the floor. He stared at me briefly and then looked into the fire as I wrapped his hand in a fresh rag. He tilted his head wistfully as if studying how the flames consumed the remaining wood. Surrendering. I tied the knot. He looked at me, thanked me, and motioned to get up and leave.
It didn’t rain for three months in the summer of nineteen eighty four.
“This is how the Romans built drains,” he said.
His hands were leathery and he smelled like history. I smelled it again in the Cathedral at Rouen. They too were our people. He handled a large rectangular cuboid shaped stone. An igneous rock, with crystals glistening in the sunlight. His biceps flexed as he held it. Sinews. It made a sound as it hit the side wall of the long drain that stretched across the landscape like a scar. Schtumpf! The Romans never reached here. Then we came.
“One like that on either side, and then a flagstone across the top. Before the cement pipes, that’s how they did it. And it’s still useful when you come to a bend, a rock that can’t be destroyed or a whitethorn tree.”
You can’t cut a whitethorn tree. They are protected by legend, the love of the local people. Hunched heads over warm jars of hot sweet tea whispered stories about those that had cut them. It was how the people of the Goddess Dana got home at night. That’s what they used to say. The light bark caught the moonlight.
He moved forward two or three feet and repeated the process. Schtumpf! Gradually, under the golden sunlight, a secret underground waterway snaked through the heather.
“Layer pebbles, then small rocks and then bigger rocks and then topsoil. Then seed it and where once there was wilderness, you’ll have rich blue grass. Then milk. Then beef.
There was not a single cloud in the sky. A curlew flew over head. He bent back to look up at the small shadow cross in blue.
“She’s free. I’ve never seen a pair. I suppose there has to be another.”
Rain. Several cars were lined up at the traffic light. I sat in the passenger seat and stared vacantly at the glowing hue of their brake-lights. I would need a new grey pants for my uniform. School was starting again in a week. The last two years. Time to get serious. A large concrete block of apartments, some 13 stories tall. Entire families lived in each of those, supposedly. Why? A Citroen pulled-in to the side of road to get out of the way of traffic.
“They had great engineering, ahead of their time, but it meant no one could fix them.”
Airport. Just like Columbus. Ferdie and Isob. I was surprised that the yellow taxi-cabs looked just like the ones in the movies.
“What number on Madison?”
“1376. Thank you.”
Everything smells different. I might be inside a television. That strange feeling of knowing something you don’t, and how to talk to people you’ve never met before. You couldn’t get lost here if you tried. Everything is sign-posted. Highway. Faucet. Garbage.
“And you have a beautiful view of the city from here.”
The tea was weak. Have I ever been this high?
When the wind blows through blue grass it turns silver in the moonlight.
At the beginning of this year I decided to consciously try and move beyond what I diagnosed as “binary thinking.” Since then, the importance of such a transition has only become more apparent. This resolution is not, as some may be forgiven for perceiving, some self-aggrandizing intellectual conceit. It was necessitated by a realization that I was missing out on some of the best parts of life.
What do I mean by “binary thinking?” Our current political environment offers a perfect starting-point. I live in Washington DC, and this is, most definitely, a company town. “The plant” in this town is the US government, and for many of us politics is akin to what in other, perhaps better-adjusted communities, passes for sport. Capitol Hill is our Wrigley Field and we go about our everyday lives as lawyers, artists and entrepreneurs with one eye on what’s happening at the plant. Just as Detroit in the 70’s must have obsessed about the market-shares of American and Japanese car producers, so here we obsess about the oscillating front-line between, from my perspective, the forces of egalitarian progress and the retrograde machinations of the well-heeled incumbent amoral elite. A decade ago I began my own personal fatwa on the Fox News Network. I haven’t watched it since. But even the remaining news networks that I continue to endure, frequently enrage me by demonstrating the Lilliputian brain that guides this lumbering superpower. However, given the importance of the public issues at stake, (whether it be a war unleashed on a foreign civilian population with infuriatingly inhumane thoughtlessness, or the indifference to the suffering of millions of people living and dying without health care) I simply cannot in good conscience stand idly by. And so I have jumped in to the Theatre of Tantrums and argued my preferred simplification. And I don’t feel too bad about that because the behavior of the Republican camp has never failed to undermine my lowest expectations. But all of this has had a price. When you debate with an idiot you never truly win. It’s like spot-training with a weakling. You will win every single bout, but compared to who you could have been, you are losing every day. Political debates in the current political environment become declaratory squawks about the obvious. There is no discussion about the nuance, the tradeoffs and the grays of political policy. Steeped in this environment as we are in this town, this mental brutality creeps in to one’s thoughts about almost everything else. If you can’t say what you mean about spirituality, relationships, a restaurant, economic policy, philosophy, fashion, culture, art in an unambiguous sound-bite, well then you don’t mean very much at all. And over time, like someone with a growing cataract, you begin to see less and less of life’s detail. Everything is a servant of some grand meta-narrative, and it is either wholly positive or negative to the degree to which it serves that theory. And through this “binary thinking” we corrupt ourselves into cogs, bland, uninteresting, minimalist, sterile, hard, coarse, idiotic, but perfectly labeled.
And yet life itself is rich with wonder and beauty and intricacies beyond imagination. But we will never experience much of it unless we run the risk of being called a hypocrite by fools for the chance to hold two opposing ideas at the same time. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Many years ago, I “left the Catholic Church.” It was, albeit at a young age, a reasoned and intentional, political, philosophical and theological rejection of the entire establishment. Specifically it was my response to the Church’s policy towards single-mothers, homosexuals, contraception and contraception in the context of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Beyond that it was the rejection of a monarchical hierarchy and the idea of an intermediary between me and a higher presence. And then finally, most fundamentally, it was a consequence of a belief that there is no God. But today, in this imperfect world, I have come to see the need for allies to counter-balance the vulgarity of the marketplace and it tendency at times to commodify humanity. Furthermore, I cannot deny that in me there is some quality that my conditioning has made me think of, and define as, the spiritual. I am open to the idea, though not entirely convinced, that it is a Pavlovian reaction; that the common association of a religious teaching, temple or artifact with a certain type of feeling makes one feel that feeling. But what if that is true? And if that is true, then how many other feelings in my life may be Pavlovian? Do I really like steak, Bach, forests, log-fires, my friends? Should I, for the sake of some imagined truth, forgo these things, embrace the misery of their absence because of a suspicion that my desires for them are merely desires for the pleasure I associate with them? At what point does all of this become mere semantics? What is the value of the reward? Oh and by the way, your death is coming, and faster than you think! “All knowledge is vain and full of errors that does not spring from experiment.” So this Christmas morning I went to church.
I sat there in a beautiful Byzantine cathedral with mixed emotions. The excerpts from the bible were parochial. The sermon was infantile. But the architecture and the music were beautiful. And inside me I had this maelström of voices; “sell-out!”, “they always come back in the end don’t they (insert cynical smile here)”, “you’re being sold, its just like an iPod – you’re a sucker!”, “sheep!” “you are the last person that should be allowed in a church.” And I struggled to overcome these voices. I tried to focus on what I had come there on that Christmas morning to feel. I wanted to feel transcendence. I wanted to draw sufficient strength from the millennia of devotion, from something more beautiful than the present, a shared belief at least in the beautiful, so as to overcome my own pettiness, my own finite obsessions, my own impoverished binary thinking. And I did. I thought on that Christmas morning of my ancestors, my family, humanity stretched across time, hope, perseverance, beauty. I slipped into a mental exercise whereby those that had looked on this beauty before me became tangible to me. I sat with them in communion. And simultaneously I understood, that this was something I was creating, and yet it took me beyond myself, to a place that was, at some level, at least no less an illusion than the one I was standing in. The mass ended. I left. Confused and at peace.
Now I feel awkward about that last paragraph. I’m a very secular person. Some will misinterpret what I have written. Some may even feel betrayed. I know that I would be among the first to look at it on another occasion and dismiss it with an “oh please.” But in the end, the particular example is not important. What is important is running the gauntlet. What is important is the process: the perception of things as they are, with both negative and positive aspects, and then mining the potential good. The world becomes much more interesting with this approach. Life becomes better. There is less of the struggle about it. It feels like a more holistic way to live. The Cheney/Palin/Limbaugh Republicans continue to be the paid bitch-boys of Satan (there is light between my point and moral relativism), but almost everything else earns a redeeming quality. Life becomes playful again, and wonder returns to the earth.
Alexander Lutchek refused to be wet. This resolution passed through his mind as he stood outside the “Hot Yoga” studio on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. To those passing by, including the local artist, Thomas Brown (who would later that evening paint the most famous work of his life, Connecticut Clown), Lutchek presented a most incongruous figure. Six feet tall, decked in a bright green jacket and bearing several large and brightly wrapped Christmas presents, Lutchek was, despite his refusal, drenched to the skin. Until that moment Lutchek had been having one of his better days. The majority of the gifts that he had purchased for loved ones, near and far, were perfectly suited for their intended recipients. This made him happier. So much happier in fact that the co-occurrence of these events seemed numinous to him. Fundamentally, he felt, his very fate had changed. He had spent much of the day imagining these gifts being opened on a chilly Christmas morning, beneath a perfectly appointed and illuminated tree. Even though he would not be there, he foresaw how the gifts themselves would eagerly escape their wrapping, inhale the pine and roast-turkey scented air of their new home in a distant land. Mother. This joy he felt in being outside of his own preoccupations, the interminable imprisonment of his own mind, led perfectly to a mood that guaranteed the spiritual success of his evening yoga class. Like the dawn breaking across a large expanse of flat countryside, this feeling of oneness with the world, this happy conclusion that all-in-all, most was best throughout the commonwealth, began to call forth thoughts of New Year’s resolutions and various enterprises for self-improvement. “It’s a matter of style, it’s how you carry yourself,” he thought as he reached for the door. Everything would fall into place. And then, as he opened the front door of the studio, one of DC’s blond-haired, white-pearled, BMW-driving K Street lobbyists, summarily splashed the contents of the city’s largest pothole directly, completely, and exclusively on the person of Mr. Lutchek. As the smell of discarded cigarette butts, strip-club detergent and the rubber-residue of a thousand tyres journeyed up his nose, the elegant calligraphy of the notes he attached to each of his deftly wrapped presents, began to dissolve into illegible, blackrose murky inkblots. It was precisely this scene that Brown would hang in the nearby National Portrait Gallery the following summer. Though one of the gallery’s most regular visitors, Lutchek would never see this painting.
The deep red hue of the traffic light drove Alice Foley into the past. Ringless fingers tightened on the steering wheel. At the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and S Street NW she lay under the Christmas tree as a child. Staring into the multicolored lights, she enjoyed how each one in turn had the capacity to change her mood. The pink; all things sweet, an August pencil case. The green; mercurial and otherworldly, a Victorian bodice. The blue; cold and industrial, things that had to be done. The red; the warmth of her father’s face. She missed him then and missed him still. No man since had such a light. No man since had ever been able, even in the most intimate of ecstasies, to lessen her grip on that want. She saw her small hands on his face. Now those hands were long, the flesh looser again this year. She lost awareness of herself and where she actually was when she imagined hearing that key in the door, the inhalation of his lifting, the evening stubble on his face, the solidity of his embrace, the guarantee that he would always be there. She knew that she ought to be grateful to have friends that would invite her to their celebrations this year, as they had so many before. She saw herself, navigating around strangers as she filled her plate from the credenza. An insufficient man would again carve the turkey this year. She was never stuck for words. It was her profession. She would drink no more than two glasses of wine. How had it come to this? Her foot pressed on the accelerator, even before the light had turned. She saw the yoga-studio and the door opening. She accelerated rapidly towards the pothole. Her feelings likewise dashed faster than her ability to analyze or stop them. She found a forbidden peace in letting go. As the author, only I can tell you what she never will. Since her father’s death in the Vietnam War, she had, as so many of us do, sublimated and redirected her feelings into a determined work-ethic. This had served her well, materially, but as we can see from the above, there were obvious wounds left untended. She associated the yoga studio with a self-indulgence she claims to have never afforded herself. She had of course never been inside a yoga-studio. No. That’s not true. She had once, briefly, to convert a gift voucher she had been given into cash. In any case she considered such things affected, impractical “balderdash.” (Her father had never actually used that word). Beneath her indictment, lay a reluctance to turn inward to the things that sat waiting for her there, and beneath that reluctance a knowledge that she would remain forever staring at a stoplight until she did.
It was not gallantry that inspired Gabriel Guttman to let the blond-haired woman in the BMW into the lane before him. He loved BMW. As he watched the curved hips of the vehicle present themselves before him, he thought of how perfectly each component within performed its function. He relished thinking how the pistons moved cleanly in each cylinder, the timed ignition of the controlled explosion in each chamber. It was the precision, the order of it all, that drove his lust. It represented a predictability in the affairs of man, a deliverance from arbitrariness and compounded misfortune, that he reluctantly felt could only exist in the the north. That is why he left. That is why, for now, he filled potholes for the City. He reached into a small box beside him for one of the cookie rings that his son had made for him. It was an incredibly good cookie, crumbly but moist. He looked at it in his hand, disbelieving. He placed the remainder in his mouth. My son. There was a card at the bottom of the now empty box on which was written in precociously elegant hand; “Por Papa, Todo mi amor.” He gasped to stop himself from reacting in a way that would embarrass him. When he thought of Christmas he was filled with trepidation. He loved how the house would fill with his brothers and their wives and children. He loved how he and his brothers would tell the same stories they always told each other about the ridiculous excuses that they had invented on the spot as children to appease their angered German-immigrant father. ” . . . era el chupacabras” was the punch-line that could still bend them all over in tears of laughter after all these years. Gabriel knew his son was gay. And despite his wife’s suspicions, that much did not bother him. At least not as much as she thought. He knew to the extent that it did so, such feelings were merely a function of the world in which he had grown up. He knew that there was another world, the world that he wanted for his son, in which it didn’t matter. “The greatest artists of the world. . . Alexander the Great . . . ” he found himself rehearsing the defense. But he knew that with his brothers, this defense would be futile. He prayed that there would be no incident this year that would would cause his oldest brother to stare at him. But in truth, he didn’t care what he had to endure. He worried most of what his son would have to endure. And he knew that eventually his son would seek an end to the need for such endurance. He had watched others leave their families before. He sometimes saw men alone on Christmas Day in the city and thought that that must be why they were alone. Men without women. “Will I lose my son?” “Todo mi amor?” He reached for the clipboard beside him that listed a large pothole at the corner of Connecticut and S Street NW. As he turned on the emergency stop lights, he drew a line through this, the last job of the day. He was excited to imagine his key in the lock of the front door to his house, to anticipate feeling his daughter’s small hands on his face as he lifted her into the air. He shifted the gear into park. He stopped. Sat back in the seat of his truck. He caught his own eyes looking at him in the letterbox rear-view mirror. “I swear, I will never lose my son.” The BMW in front of him left skid-marks as it accelerated. Gabriel winced in anticipation. He heard the wheel of the BMW hit the edge of road. A large wave of water arched several feet into the air and soaked a man as he stepped onto the street. Gabriel felt guilty and sorry that he had not gotten here sooner. He thought the man looked like a type of clown. Drenched in bright colors.
I had lunch today at the Taj Mahal restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. I love the Taj, even though it is not the best Indian restaurant in the city. Far from it in fact. My gratitude to the incredibly polite waitstaff chastens my descriptions. It may be sufficient, and sufficiently cryptic to say that any young man leaving the restaurant after a successful date should immediately marry the object of his affections. For the captivating charm of the Taj remains hidden to most. In short, it looks and feels like a hotel in Delhi in 1979. Or at least what I imagine such a place and time must have felt like. The timber laminate walls, the golden chandeliers, the red cloth napkins stuck in stout glasses. Its all so excellently retro, so precisely in accordance with my imagination. You’ve got to admire someone who stays out of the loop for so long that now they are back in it. Its a variety of chutzpah. It is perhaps odd for a non-Indian to say, or just odd to say, that the Taj to me feels gemütlich. Forgive me for reaching for words from foreign languages to adequately explain its poignancy, but English is simply insufficient to capture the meat of the matter. As I look around the second floor, my mind starts imagining the type of conversations that would have occurred in such a place at such a time; whispers of Kashmir, non-aligned nation foreign policy, third-path economic development, nationalization, the implications of Chinese-American detente, ridiculous eyewear. Despite the current much improved situation in India, the 70s in Delhi had their charm. I can say that with all the certainty of one who just arrived. Or maybe its just that looking back I know how things will turn out. Every hostage thinks of breakfast. There are not many places in America as honest and easily genuine as the Taj. Restaurateurs spend millions to convince me that I’m in an American steakhouse. I don’t think I say that just because I’m a foreigner in the US. I’ve been a foreigner in many countries and yet as such I’ve been blessed enough to feel the spirit of Japan’s ancient martial traditions in a kendo hall in Tokyo, the serenity of Thailand’s monasteries, the love of life in a Roman neighborhood, the bohemian carelessness of a Parisian dive. America is in such a rush that its ghosts can’t afford the rent. Ignorant reviewers describe the Taj as a dump. But there is a difference between a dump and a place of rest.