Archive for October, 2012

The Bell Between Heaven and Earth

Fritz sat at the head of the table, glowing. The dinner party was past the early stages of food and formality and onto drinks and raucous discussion; juicy gossip of the philosophy department like who was screwing whom and who shouldn’t get tenure; an impassioned diatribe about disco, hip-hop, and punk rock, and how the three were born in the same New York borough in 1977; overflowing confession of pet peeves and childhood fetishes. Fritz remained mostly silent, basking in everyone else’s warmth. Janice, the one undergraduate at the table, sat to his right, lobbing question after yearning question toward him, trying to gain his approval. He responded tersely but in a way that only made her want to ask more questions.

Stan’s voice rose above the rest, “What do you think would’ve been Heidegger’s favorite song- in 1977?” “Let it Be” said Doug. Stan said, “But that was like, ten years old by then.” Doug replied, “But this is Heidegger, of course he’s ten years behind!” Everyone except Fritz and Janice laughed. “Sex Pistols. Pretty Vacant” said Levi, “Because we are. Oh so pretty vacant“. Even Fritz laughed at that one. Janice said, “What do you mean, I don’t get it” “Well, my dear” said Levi, “Dasein, that is, you and I, are hopelessly empty. Inchoate. That’s a bad thing, if we run away from it. But if you stay there, suspended in the midst of nothingness, you just might have a shot”. Janice said, “A shot at what? Where’s the bottle opener?” She stared helplessly at the antique bottle of wine Fritz quietly set in front of her a minute before. “Right here” said Fritz. He handed her a stainless steel wine opener. As Janice struggled to screw it in, she said, “I just love it here. It’s so warm and, and magical. No that’s not it…” Fritz lifted the bottle from her hands.

“It’s Gemütlich“, said Fritz, while efficiently opening the bottle with a POP, “what you are feeling is something no English word can describe”. He poured the white wine generously into Janice’s glass then handed her the bottle. He pointed with his eyes to her left and she automatically passed it to Doug. “Gemewtlish” said Janice. Laurie couldn’t help but snicker as she in turn passed it to Levi, who sat at Fritz’s left. “This bottle looks like it’s come a long way”, said Levi, holding it up to the light. “Where did you, when the hell did you get this? Nineteen-forty…”

“… Last spring” Fritz changed his demeanor from spectator to lecturer, grabbing everyone’s attention, “I was in Würzburg, Germany, visiting a distant cousin. It was March 16. On that same day, over fifty years ago, Würzburg was completely destroyed by British warplanes. It was one of the most senseless tragedies of the war. Berlin was captured only days later. Würzburg was of no strategic importance whatsoever. The British simply wanted to make the German people suffer. Like Dresden- firebombed just weeks before- Würzburg was an old medieval city, made of old, desiccated wood. It and nearly all its inhabitants were incinerated in less than seventeen minutes. From the heavens, Fire fell upon this city as it peacefully slept, nestled in the Franconian hills, hills that are, as it were, carpeted by grapevines. That is where this came from.”

Fritz held out his hand to Levi who, reluctantly, handed him the bottle. Fritz filled his own glass then set the bottle in the middle of the table. “I said the city was completely destroyed. Not completely. In the center, the oldest bell tower of the oldest church still stood, rising out of the carnage. After the war, it was considered whether or not Würzburg should even be rebuilt. It was at this bell tower…” Fritz pointed at the bottle of wine “…that the women of Würzburg rallied (for there were no men left), clearing the entire city brick by brick. Trümmerfrau, or Rubble Women, we call them. The city and all its former buildings were re-built to a T. Anyways, to get to the end, I was there on the night of the 16th, and witnessed their annual memorial. Every light and television in the city is shut off. The city cloaks itself in darkness. Then, for seventeen minutes, every bell in every church rings louder and louder. Both windows and your heart begin to sound and ring and vibrate, to hover and to tremble. The old widows weep.

Silence grew over the table. Janice muffled a burp. “A Toast!” Everyone raised their glass. “To Würzburg!” Almost everyone. Levi’s still sat on the table. Everyone but Fritz looked at him with confusion. Levi asked, “But how did you get this bottle? 1944. It had to be made by the… the Germans were…” “I said I had a distant cousin”, said Fritz. Janice hit her glass a couple times with her fork, the sound resonating through the thick air that had seeped into the room and said, “How ’bout it? A toast to Wurtzburg!’ Fritz’s hand remained raised level. Levi’s hand stayed down. Everyone else shifted uncomfortably.

“I’m not drinking Nazi Wine”, said Levi. There were a few nervous laughs. Some of the hands lowered a bit, but nobody set their glasses down. Everyone looked to Fritz for a reply, and in a sense, instruction. He gave none, except for raising his glass up into the air a little higher, his arm becoming almost straight. Their eyes darted from Fritz to Levi, rising a little when they looked at one and lowering when they looked at the other. Some of the hands began to shake, from the physical strain or nervousness or both. “I’ll toast”, said Levi. “Thank God”, said Janice. “To the destruction of Würzburg” said Levi. Fritz’s hand stayed right where it was. Everyone else’s continued to sway up and back and down and forth like church bells.

“I told you” said Fritz, with gathering impatience, “Würzburg was a peaceful city. It was innocent. As was Dresden. The allies had murder on their mind, not war.” “You did not tell me” said Levi “how you got this bottle. Except for your ‘distant cousin’. Which you continue to distance yourself from…” “… I will not” said Fritz “they were Nazis. I admit it. There’s no such thing as a German- or an Austrian, for that matter- who survived the war who was not a Nazi. Joining the Nazi party was a matter of survival. Fight them and you were dead. It was that simple. But if you’re to tell me a German mother of three is as evil as Himmler, then that’s absurd.” Levi said, “So your ancestors were Nazis. This wine was made by Nazi hands“.

Fritz looked Levi right in the eye and said, “No more a Nazi than your intellectual father, Heidegger was. The Man nearly all of you have built your entire academic career upon”. Everyone else’s hand rose quickly, rigid like a flag at half-mast. Levi drank his entire glass in one gulp and slammed it down.

Fritz quit his argumentative posture and began to speak gently, grazing them with the sound of his voice “Think of it this way” he said, “These grapes arose from the Earth. They didn’t know politics or right or wrong. They became what they are- grapes- from a tiny seed. Their entire existence was mapped out in the beginning within that tiny kernel. We are like those seeds, hopelessly becoming what we already are. We do have, however, some capacity to change things. So did Heidegger. Perhaps he could have done better. But let us not confuse autonomy with godliness. We, like the grapes, have to deal with the conditions of life: Earth, Air, and Water. And Fire. The Fire that fell upon Würzburg was the same Fire used in the Crematoriums. The same Fire vanquished the Armenians and the Native Americans. Yet we drink Turkish Coffee and smoke Virginian cigarettes. Can we not taste Franconian Riesling?”

Prost” “Prost” “Prost” “Prost” “Prost”

The entire table, minus Levi, raised their arms as if performing a bygone salute and tapped each other’s glasses.

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Drill

[This was a collaborative work with Erica Ricardo. To find out more about Erica Ricardo, visit here and here]

INT. PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE – DAY

A small spartan medical examination room, ugly but clean: sink, desk, rolling chair at the desk, shitty folding chair next to it. Exam table, drop ceiling. Poster of human anatomy. Skull and brain in cross-section. The open window looks out on Chicago’s North Side. Periodically we hear a gutteral, indistinct NOISE from downstairs.

The psychiatrist LINDA (40) sits at the desk with a giant to-go cup of coffee. When she’s not writing or talking she takes long sucking pulls from it. GOPHER (23) sits in the folding chair. She faces the wall, he faces the room, and neither quite faces the other.

                      LINDA

So! What brings you in here today?

                     GOPHER

I have hand tremors. Had them since

I was a kid. My therapist said if I

took beta blockers it might stop.

Not the anxiety but the physical

response.

She stares at his hands for a long time. They fidget, try to hide, and then play dead.

                     LINDA

Where do you work. Do you work?

                     GOPHER

I work at a coffeeshop. That’s why

I want the beta blockers. Cus I

have to use my hands. And people

will be watching.

                     LINDA

People will be watching…

She writes this down.

                     GOPHER

When people are looking at me I

fear that my hands will tremble and

then that makes them tremble.

                     LINDA

Are you in school?

                     GOPHER

I graduated.

                     LINDA

What did you study?

                     GOPHER

Philosophy.

                     LINDA

Philosophy …

She writes this down, too.

                     GOPHER

… and that might be part of the

problem. That I think too much.

                     LINDA

How is thinking a problem?

The SOUND from downstairs suddenly much louder. The next few lines, they’ll have to SHOUT.

                     GOPHER

Do you hear that tuba player?

Gopher cuts Linda off, indicates floor.

                     GOPHER (CONT’D)

It’s like that tuba player. When

he’s playing his scales, he can’t

think about the note. Otherwise he

can’t play it.

                     LINDA

Yes, those drills have been going

for weeks now.

The NOISE suddenly stops.

                     GOPHER

When they’re practicing drills or

whatever, they can’t think too

much. Otherwise they can’t act.

                     LINDA

Do you ever have visual or auditory

hallucinations? Do you ever hear things

other people don’t hear?

                     GOPHER

I did when I used drugs.

                     LINDA

Marijuana?

                     GOPHER

The occasional psychedelic.

She writes this down.

                     LINDA

Psychedelics can cause

hallucinations. So can flashbacks.

                     GOPHER

Heh, but do those really happen?

Linda looks up, deadly serious.

                     LINDA

They do.

                     GOPHER

What should I do if I get a, um,

flashback?

                     LINDA

I suggest you find a safe place.

Maybe some good people to be

around. Wait it out.

                     GOPHER

So basically the what I did the

first time.

                     LINDA

Have you ever been suicidal?

                     GOPHER

Mmm, nope. Never.

Linda’s pen poised but not moving.

                     LINDA

Really?

                     GOPHER

Really.

Beat. Gopher gives a tight-lipped smile.

                     LINDA

What else are you seeing a

therapist for?

                     GOPHER

Existential … issues.

                     LINDA

Such as?

                     GOPHER

How to live a worthwhile life.

                     LINDA

 Making any progress?

                     GOPHER

Unclear. Right now I’m a highly

trained individual, utterly useless

to society…

                     LINDA

…. hence working at a coffeeshop…

                     GOPHER

… right. But, figuring out what is a worthwhile

life is itself- for now- a worthwhile pursuit.

                      LINDA

Have you ever been depressed?

She takes an especially long gulp of coffee.

                     GOPHER

Yes.

                     LINDA

Depressed how? What did you do?

                     GOPHER

Not much!

She writes this down.

                     GOPHER (CONT’D)

Uh. I didn’t leave the room. Slept

a lot. Like 13 hours a day. Every

day seemed to get away.

                     LINDA

You were withdrawn.

                     GOPHER

Yes.

                     LINDA

I’ll write you a prescription for

Xanax.

                     GOPHER

I don’t need a prescription for

Xanax.

                     LINDA

Xanax will help your anxiety. It’ll

keep you from getting down.

                     GOPHER

Oh, I just drink St. John’s wort

tea.

                     LINDA

If St. John’s wort is ingested with

certain foods it can lead to high

blood pressure. How much do you

know about it?

                     GOPHER

I talk to my herbalist. He also

taught me the do-nothing technique.

He sets his hand out in front of himself and freezes. His

hand is still, then trembles. He grips his knees.

                     GOPHER (CONT’D)

That’s basically it. You do it for

as long as you can.

                     LINDA

Any allergies?

                     GOPHER

No. I’ve been tested.

                     LINDA

Most allergy tests are scams. They

prick you and charge a thousand

dollars. By and large they’re not

accepted by Western medicine.

                     GOPHER

Really!

                     LINDA

I recommend a food-elimination

diet. Pick out a few

things–lactose, gluten, what have

you–remove them one at a time, and

watch how your body reacts. You can

do that for free.

                     GOPHER

Wow. Ok.

She gets out a prescription pad and scrawls.

                     LINDA

Meanwhile, here’s a prescription

for beta blockers and Xanax.

                     GOPHER

I don’t want a–

On Linda’s LOOK.

                     GOPHER (CONT’D)

I’ll hang onto it.

                     LINDA

Take the beta blockers 15 to 20

minutes before work or as needed.

She TEARS off the prescription and hands it to him. The NOISE from downstairs returns even louder than before.

                     GOPHER

Alright doc. Thanks a lot!

                     LINDA

It’s been a pleasure!

                     GOPHER

What?

                     LINDA

Pleasure!

                     GOPHER

Likewise!

They shake hands.

SMASH CUT TO INT. ELEVATOR – 1 MINUTE LATER

Gopher on the elevator going down, rocking on his heels, scrip in hand. Elevator stops on the floor below. A CONSTRUCTION WORKER (32) with a hugely oversized drill and a TUBA PLAYER (18) in a formal black dress enter. Gopher shakes his head. Squints his eyes shut. Opens them. They’re both still there. The construction worker GRUNTS impatiently, and hits the “L” button several times. The tuba player looks back at Gopher like, “what’s this guy’s deal?” Gopher smiles. Elevator doors close.

BLACK

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Seething Serenity

A co-worker said to me he thinks he knows why I have hand tremors. “You’re a super hero. But you hold back your powers.”  I’ve had a number of theories for why my hands tremble: it’s genetic, a blood-sugar-thing, lack of discipline, poor motor skills, excessive fear, a traumatic memory, hyperactive glands, hyperactivity… none of these is entirely true on its own. But I have to think about this new one: my Powers are restricted. As in tied down, like Prometheus. Brilliant abundant power pushed down below and held there never to see the light of day. The volcano shudders without erupting. Maybe. Probably just a nervous disposition.

My trembling used to be a source of shame that led me to dominate my hands, binding them ever tighter. Make them still like patient crane fishing in pond (haiku?). But it didn’t work. I only identify with cranes in flight. My co-worker might be on to something. The energy that is my hands need to be ex-pressed (pushed out) not repressed or suppressed (pushed down and under). That’s why I’m at once excited and terrified about the barista training I’m about to begin. It calls for couth hands. As nimble as a violinist, steady as a marksman. My hands are about as nimble and steady as a water balloon being filled with a fire house.

I have to toot my own horn and expound the benefits of hypersensitivity. When a meteor strikes a planet in a distant solar system, sending shockwaves in concentric circles for billions of light-years, it’s We the Sensitive who wake up in the middle of the night with a vague sense of something timeless. On the other hand/s, we’re flighty. Easily de-stabilized. My tendency has been to (try to) make myself as stable as possible. To cultivate a placid disposition. And people who meet me (sometimes) think I’m unflappable. Peaceful. Ha! Just because the surface of the ocean is smooth as a mirror doesn’t mean a giant squid isn’t below strangling a whale. But who am I kidding. Some of you know I can’t hide my emotions worth shit.

I’m considering taking beta-blockers, a medication that arrests physiological responses to adrenaline. It could be the silver bullet. Part of me resists the idea, thinking that if I can just exercise greater mastery over myself, my hands will not shake. But I’ve tried that for years, waging war against myself, restraining what I cannot control, turning my hands of fire into ice- that has been the problem- not accepting I’m a super-hero and unleashing the dormant force. Part of me also fears that the meds would mellow me out. Push the frenzy so far down I won’t be able to reach it. I might miss my hands shaking. They’re like a tuning fork I clatter against reality in order to tune myself. Eh. Let’s try it! If the meds are a problem I can always stop. The Hands aren’t going anywhere. Why does this feel like I’m coming out?

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Psychic Indigestion

The Pit in Your Stomach. The Stomach in Knots. The Pain in your belly that seems purely biological, but then is exacerbated by Worry. The stomach is a scene where mind and body converge.

I walked by a farmer’s market just as it was closing. I approached a booth that sold enormous portobello mushrooms. I asked how much they were and the guy said five bucks for a box. ‘But’ he said ‘because it’s the end of the day, here’s a few extra for free’ ‘Boy! Am I lucky’ I thought.

I went home and sliced two mushrooms into strips and stir-fried them in oil with garlic and onions. It was great. I took a nap. Waking up hungry, I picked out the largest mushroom and cooked it in a pan like a steak. Later that night a friend came over, so I stuffed the insides of a few more with ginger and tilapia and baked them in the oven. All in all, I ate about nine whole portobello mushrooms that day.

The next day at work I was operating the cash register when I began to feel an immense amount of pain. It felt like a ninja star was lodged in my stomach. I planted both elbows on the counter to support myself. Doubled over, groaning, I continued to receive customers’ orders. A modern hero. Usually, I am quite friendly, even if I have to fake it. But- suffering as I was- I had no energy to maintain any pretense. Customers asked me how I was and I said I felt like shit. I didn’t say Thank You. I didn’t ask if they wanted room for cream in their coffee. They were baffled, but not turned off. Strangely, the tips poured in. The more honest I was about my suffering, the less I feigned interest in them, the more money they gave away.

It got so bad that I had to ask the manager for help. She asked me what was wrong. I thought about it. Nothing like abdominal pain causes you to ask with sudden seriousness- what did I eat, and when? ‘Well’ I told her ‘yesterday I ate a lot of portobello mushrooms. I got a great deal at the Farmer’s market’ I beamed with pride, amidst the consequences. ‘Did you eat the stems?’ ‘Yes…’ ‘… Baby you shouldn’t have eaten the stems. You can’t digest those. Go in the back and try to feel better.’

I went in the back and tried to feel better. I conjured the memory of those stems. Dense and light at the same time- like cork. I imagined them being used to seal a giant bottle of wine. No corkscrew at hand, I chewed through to the opening. I sat with my head between my knees. The pain went away and I celebrated its absence, then it boomeranged and I whimpered. I prayed for the pain to end. I raised my right hand and swore to an unseen witness that I would never eat portobello stems again.

How many times have I made a similar promise? I remember getting hangovers: excruciating headache, anxiety and depression, tremors, the nervous system all nervous and no system. I would pray for it to end. In the mean time, I would promise never to drink again. Of course, once the suffering was over, I forgot my promise. But every time I got another hangover, I was right back to where I started. I felt like hell.

How does one come to keep a promise? Pain is perhaps the best mnemonic device we have. This week my sister, her husband and I were discussing our earliest memories. Mine was grabbing a white-hot rock from the fire my father had used to burn leaves. Hers was getting attacked and bitten by a dog. His was climbing up the drawers of his dresser to say Hi to his pet hamsters at the top when the dresser toppled over crushing him and killing his pets. Surely we had a lot of memories of blowing out birthday candles and spending all day outside in carefree bliss. Yet the memories that stuck were the painful ones.

But pain alone is not enough cause to keep one’s promises. One can always go back on the promise by trying to forget or suppress the pain. This is impossible, of course, because painful memories are burned into the conscience like scars. If not confronted they will return accompanied by even more pain in the forms of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Misery grows but the lesson remains unlearned. The individual comes to believe the universe is intrinsically hostile or indifferent to their existence.

No, mere torture can’t do it. There must be another factor. IPerhaps gratitude. Gratitude that the torture has been lifted. When my stomachache finally ended, I could have not given the pain another thought. I could eat porto-stems again. This sounds stupid because it is. And while I will not eat the stems again, I go through this pattern again and again in my life with situations more nuanced than food. I enter relationships, develop habits, and repeat behaviors that are reincarnations of past self-destructive tendencies. I do this because I am not grateful that the old patterns have died off, that I am free from them. Of course, many of these patterns are invisible to me, so I can’t help but continue. Thus it is my practice to attempt to fully process past experiences (digest them) in order to let go (shit them out).

Nevertheless, some of this seems futile. As in, there’s no way out. I think my earliest memory is a non-memory: my circumcision. My consciousness was barely awoken when a knife was taken to my penis. I had no concept of self or body or world but I did have an experience of pure, total suffering. Such an experience surely left an indelible mark. But, because it was so early, I might as well be trying to rectify a situation from a past life. Some wounds can’t be healed, no matter how much or how vigorously I rub them with ointment.

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