Archive for May, 2013

There’s No Place like Unhome


The Germans have a word- unheimlich– whose literal translation is unhomely. Freud wrote an entire book on it. It’s most commonly translated as uncanny– close, but no cigar. And Freud always needed a big cigar… unhomely, the adjective… Unhome, the noun. Perhaps, an actual place you can go to…

 

I was about eight. One day my parents said they had something important to tell us: my two older sisters and me. Since it was especially important, they took us to a park to tell us there. I thought they were getting a divorce. We sat in one of those open-air shelters, the kind with a dry concrete floor and wooden roof where you can set food, purses and seniors, while everyone plays horseshoes or fills up water balloons outside.

My parents told us we were moving. Huh? Moving was about as abstract to me then as death is to me now; I didn’t understand. All I knew is that I’d be leaving my friends behind, and that sucked.

We were living in Byron, a tiny spot in northern Illinois. My existence up to that point was idyllic. Our home sat on the edge of a forest where my sisters and I would play, borrowing magic from the trees and deer, badgers and bears. OK, there weren’t any bears, but my dad would talk with the owls- at night- his gloved hands raised up to his mouth. Who who, whooo… (who who, whooo)… Who who, whooo… (whoooo)

They said we were moving to a suburb of Chicago. Frankfort. I was made more optimistic by the promise that there’d be a pond in our backyard where I could play hockey in the winter and catch fish in the summer.

I remember staying in a hotel in a town outside of Frankfort for the weekend before we could officially move into our new home. One night, my dad brought us kids to an arcade called, Odyssey Fun World. It was bigger, brighter, and louder than anything back home in Byron. I was amazed. My quaint memories of going to the Benjamin Franklin General Store with my mom, where she’d buy me candy cigarettes in little cardboard boxes with dinosaurs and fighter jets on them (which I’d invariably chain-chew) were vanquished by the thrill I had at the arcade games spitting out an unending chain of tickets that bought me, in the end, a Chinese finger trap.

Our new neighborhood was a newly built subdivision surrounded by flat cornfields called Heritage Knolls. Ironically, it had neither heritage nor knolls. The small streets meandered to give you the sense you were on a country drive, when in fact you were driving through a tightly regulated haven for those thinking they had made it: The American Dream, suburbs.

In the middle of the neighborhood was a rather large retention pond. I didn’t know at the time that a retention pond is a convenient fix to the drainage problem that inevitably comes from substituting a natural watershed with a hundred plus homes whose heavily fertilized lawns fill the retention pond with all sorts of carcinogenic goodies.

We pulled into our driveway and stepped inside. It was (to me) huge, impressive. Meeting you at the front door was a wooden staircase which led up to a platform that you could then turn right to go down another staircase to the kitchen or turn left to go up to a balcony which overlooked the family room, which itself was two stories tall with big pane glass windows looking outside. In my parent’s bathroom was a jacuzzi.

But the house was empty; none of our things were there- they were in a moving truck, destined to meet us in a few hours. For the time being, we unpacked the few boxes we had with us. From one, I grabbed my toys: the green plastic army men. I went into the den and started to play on the ledge by the window. I think my dad and sisters went out, and my mom was in another part of the house. Then it happened.

I started to play, but could not. A terrible feeling grew from my stomach up into my throat. I felt like I a hot air balloon and somebody cut the rope tethering me to the ground. The toys in my hand became completely unfamiliar. I looked at the room I sat in; its wood, walls, and color were strange to me. Outside, across the street, black windows on houses practically identical to this one stared back at me. I grabbed onto my toys even harder, played desperately, hoping they would become familiar, again. It was my first time unhome.

Maybe it wasn’t. The first time I went unhome was probably a sleepover at a friend’s house- but I could call my mom to pick me up. Not this time. I had to undergo the feeling. Things got better. At my first day of school I was invited to a birthday party and made three friends. Frankfort quickly felt like home. Really, it was for the best that I left Byron at the age I did. A backwoodsy town is idyllic for a child, but demoralizing for a young person who intuits a greater world.

And it wasn’t my last time unhome. First night of college. First night on my bike trip. First time in any of my apartments. Travelling abroad. To overcome the feeling, I rely on rituals and routines, prayers and talismans, to get me through it. Big boy army toys.

I haven’t always been that skillful. To get rid of the feeling my first night of college, I got wasted. So wasted I came back that night, my keys lost, and slept outside my door. Welcome Unhome.

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If it’s broke, still don’t fix it

[what lies below is the second draft. The author wrote a third and final draft but found it to be reprehensible in its crystal clarity. In the third version, a few paragraphs were removed or otherwise tweaked, making the essay more concise, coherent, and cogent. Furthermore, instead of tangents into the author’s personal life or his half-baked ideas about “work” you get a clearly stated thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
The rationale for choosing the more original version was that the author found it- however ungainly- to reveal his own uncertainty and wonder, and that that was more true than appearing as if he were certain on these matters.
The author extends his sincere gratitude to all the readers willing to make the effort, meeting him more-than-half-way. He also- a bit haughtily- adds another riddle: which is the final draft? The one below, or the one that came after it that will never see the light of day?]

I left home for two days and was worried how my house plants would be without me watering them. When I came back they were huge. Part of it was my perception (usually I see them every few hours and growth is inconspicuous). But most of it is that I wasn’t home to water them. The woman at the nursery said the oregano especially didn’t need to be watered often. But being the loving parent I am, or rather, wanting to feel like the loving parent I might be, I watered oregano every day, sometimes twice. The plants didn’t need me; they needed to be left alone.

A lot of things are better left alone: scabs, grumpy people, nature. Nothing sums it up like, “If it aint broke don’t fix it”. However, I have a tendency to over-exert myself, thinking that the only way things will be okay is if I sweat, bleed and toil.

I have some theories why. There’s something called the Puritan work ethic- prominent in this country- that states “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”. There’s also the industrial revolution, which has made hard work into a virtue (for a long time, it simply was not). Another explanation is that our society is biased, privileging the active over the passive.

All these explanations are true, perhaps to describe a general atmosphere in which I’m prone to over-do it. But they fail to get at the root of why I drown my house plants believing I’m doing them good.

I think the answer is simple, and universal: Ego. Ego says that I am in charge and can manipulate the world and fix it; it says I am responsible for when things are going well- or bad; ego wants to be as real as possible, so it works to effect change; when it acts on something (i.e. excessively watering plants) it tells itself it’s doing good, when really the “good feeling” is a feeling of power. Nietzsche articulated this point most exhaustively.

Let me give you a practical example. A friend of mine applied for a job at where I work. I said he could put me down as a reference. He interviewed. He said it went well. Few days later… he got the job. Immediately (in my mind) I took credit. Part of me was happy for him, but an even bigger part of me was happy at my own sense of power. That my name carries weight. But it’s not true. It was not my doing. He felt confident going into the interview and did a great job. Perhaps he got the job in spite of me. OK, that’s probably not true, either. It’s fair to say that I had a part- as a connector- but that he got the job because of his own doing. My employers, the interviewers, also had a part. My friend’s friends who supported him, also had a part. And maybe, just maybe, so did something else. Something greater than any of us…

If the problem is ego, how is it overcome? Should I work hard to eliminate my selfish tendencies? Should I take certain actions (like helping someone else) to get me out of myself? Should I identify with other people, seeing the similarities instead of the differences? Should I identify with the entire universe, hoping to transcend ego completely? Yes…

… and no. Because if I do any of those things, then my ego will end up taking the credit for overcoming itself. We’ve stepped into a paradox. I can’t do it alone. I have to ask for help. I can take some of the steps, but the dissolution of ego isn’t something ego can do. That’s not even a paradox, it’s a contradiction.

In practical terms, think of the plant. It doesn’t grow itself. All it does is absorb water, sun, earth and air. If it gets those things, growth just happens. Same with us. Or at least, I can speak for myself, about my own strategy: set the optimal conditions for growth (emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual). From there, the growth just happens- but it’s not my doing.

And you know what? Sometimes I “over-water” myself. Usually, it’s too many books or emotional expression. Rarely do I exercise or meditate too much. I know other people who are the opposite, but the same principle applies: we do too much. Instead, we could let the natural growth process occur- on the condition we do the basics.

It always does, unless you’re self-destructive. Something no plant has to wrestle with.

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Hemorrhage!

Cynthia stole the water bottle while her boyfriend Gavin faked a hemorrhage at the front of the line in front of the cash register. She put it in the large pocket on the inside of her coat, and then closed the glass door of the refrigerator. As the door thud shut she saw herself in the reflection of the glass and stopped.

Earlier that day, Gavin said, “This time I want to fake a hemorrhage. I’ll flop around the floor with my tongue out”. Cynthia said, “That’s a seizure, not a hemorrhage”. “Then what’s a hemorrhage?” asked Gavin. “I don’t know”, said Cynthia, “you’re the… you’re the one who wants to do it”.

She wanted to say, “You’re the idiot who wants to do it”. Now, looking at herself in the mirror she said, “You’re the idiot”.

Gavin did a bad job faking a hemorrhage. Afraid to hurt himself, he fell onto one knee like he was about to propose and then fell the rest of the way to the ground. He just lied there like a self-conscious ham.

The barista behind the counter looked at him with a bored expression on his face. “Are you okay, man?”

Gavin began to panic, because he didn’t know whether someone could talk during a hemorrhage. He didn’t take his Wikipedia research that far. Cynthia was still staring at herself in the mirror, the water bottle hidden in her pocket. Gavin looked like a cross between a peacock and a possum, on the one hand playing dead, on the other hand attracting attention (away from Cynthia).

The plan was the same as before- Gavin would fake some kind of injury, Cynthia would steal something. Not that they needed to. Obviously: it was water. The reason they did it was because it gave them a rush, a rush that led to the bedroom, a place they hadn’t been (for that purpose) in a long time until their first heist, which, unlike now, was spontaneous.

Gavin and Cynthia were in a liquor store. While Cynthia was buying her Pall Malls Gavin wandered to the Tostitos. He leaned over to pick up a bag from the bottom shelf and nailed his head on the rack and started to bleed. The cashier ran to his side and administered first-aid while Cynthia stood with her hand to her mouth by the check-out counter. Gavin looked at her with electric eyes then looked at the tray full of lighters in front of her. She knew immediately what he meant, and grabbed them. Afterward they screwed, first in the stairwell on the way to the bedroom, and then again in the bedroom.

They laughed about it afterward. Cynthia forgot the problem that was the fact that she was distracting herself with Gavin from her real problems. Gavin said they should do it again. Steal. Cynthia said Yes; he laughed before realizing she was serious.

The second time it was a Twix and a fake asthma attack. Same result. Awesome sex.

But this time, the third time, it didn’t feel the same. For one, Gavin did a shitty job faking a hemorrhage. And two, she saw herself. Inside herself.

The barista asked again if Gavin was OK, acting like he was about to walk around and help but not. In an all-at-once burst Gavin shouted, “Hemorrhage!” “Hemorrhage?” asked the barista. “Yeah”, said Gavin, “Hemorrhage”.  “How do you know?”

As Gavin did a mental cartwheel trying to think of what to say Cynthia felt embarrassed to be with Gavin. Even though nobody knew they were together. Somehow that made it worse.

“Alright, dude, I’m going to call an ambulance”, said the barista. “Wait, No! It’s really not that bad”, pleaded Gavin, still lying in the exact same spot he fake-fell into, wondering whether or not hemorrhage victims could move. He looked at Cynthia for direction but she kept looking within herself.

She saw her thinning hair despite the cunning brushing she did and she saw that the white makeup she wore was still darker than her pallid skin. She saw the regret around her eyes and the fear of the future beneath her mouth. The cold, long earrings she wore were like pendulums at the end of time.

I forgot to mention a crowd had gathered, but nobody was doing anything worth talking about, except for simultaneously gawking and balancing their over-filled lattes, which, if you want a portrait of the conflict between care for the life of the other and care for one’s own superficial well-being, well there you have it.

“Hi” said the barista into the phone “We have an emergency… Acropolis Coffee… Grandville and Kenmoore… a hemorrhage… right, a hemorrhage… he’s on the floor… no bleeding… how?… because he said so… right… right… no… he’s talking… put him on the phone?- dude, can you talk?” “No” said Gavin, “I’m fine. I can’t talk. I can talk. I’m not fine.” “No” said the barista to the operator “He can’t… OK… see you soon.” Beep.

Cynthia turned away from the fridge and looked down at Gavin for the first time. He looked up at her with scared eyes wanting to know what he should do. He looked to see if she had gotten the water bottle. But she had forgotten all about the water bottle. She held her palm against her forehead, feeling her temperature.

By now the manager had arrived and was on one knee trying to help/get information from Gavin. Gavin decided to show signs of life, in order to convince the paramedics that were about to arrive to leave him alone so he could go and maybe still have sex with his girlfriend (O the capacity to believe the rush is mutual).

The manager noticed Gavin and Cynthia looking at each other and asked, “Are you two together?”

“No.”                                                                                            “No.”

They both said No but for different reasons. Gavin was maintaining the masquerade; Cynthia was done. She walked to the manager and said, “Here”. She handed him the water bottle and said, “It’s good for hemorrhages. She walked out as three paramedics barged in.

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An Elevated Experience

I wandered around the 13th floor of an office building wondering how I got there. The elevator dinged so I stepped on and not knowing where to go pressed 12 but then pressed 1 because a couple holding a small dog stepped on and the man was holding the dog’s back legs and the woman was holding the dog’s front legs and they were moving gradually apart and it became clear to me as they pulled the two ends of the dog away from each other that they had just broken up but hadn’t yet decided who would get the dog and I wanted to stay on the elevator for as long as it would take to see who’d win.

My speculation about their breaking up was confirmed when she pressed 1 and he pressed 2 and both continued to hold onto the dog even tighter, inching further apart. I speculated further on why they broke up. Maybe they got the dog hoping it would bring them closer together, but when it came up that the dog might need to be neutered a mild debate ensued, which exploded into a dispute about masculinity and “what it means to be a man”, and each side expressed opinions that the other side found intolerable, and they came to the mutual conclusion that they were not right for each other, but couldn’t agree on who would get the dog.

… the elevator descends to 12, 11…

The couple tried to hide the fact that they were playing tug-of-war with the dog. Somehow they were familiar but I couldn’t remember how. Then it landed: the story of King Solomon.

…10…

Two women came to King Solomon with a baby each claiming to be their own. Solomon proposed a solution by which both women would win: he’d cut the baby in half. He lifted up his sword and- as you might know- one of the women shouted, “No! Don’t kill the baby. Let her have it. I’d rather the baby live, even if it’s with another woman.” That, concluded King Sol, proved who the real mother was, and he gave the baby to her.

…9 …

Maybe what this couple needed was a wise man like King Solomon, I thought. Looking around the elevator, I realized I was the only candidate. I shall present to them a solution by which both will win: I’ll cut the dog in two. I grabbed the small knife in my pocket but hesitated because of the thought: what if neither of them are willing to sacrifice their claim? That’s a possibility King Solomon didn’t have to confront. We don’t know if he was bluffing or not. If he was, he’s lucky one of the women gave up her hand. Come to think of it, the Old Testament is chock-full of bluffs. Even earlier than King Solomon is the story of Abraham. Classic bluff.

God told Abraham to kill his son, Isaac. Abraham didn’t know whether God was bluffing or not. However, being a man of extreme faith, he called. Knife in hand, Abraham took Isaac to Mount Moriah and was about to murder him- only then did God interject. Abraham was told not to kill his son only after he became willing to do it. He accepted God’s bet, forcing God to lay down his cards on the table: a divine bluff.

… 8…

I decided against playing the role of King Solomon because of the risk that both parties would refuse to concede which would force me to become a criminal instead of an immortal example of wisdom and justice. I relaxed the grip on my knife. The shoulder blade. If I had to do it, it’d be just above the shoulder blade.

… 7, the elevator stops and the doors open…

A small boy stepped on, alone. He was short enough to walk right under the dog which hung over him like a piñata. The boy yelled, “Ooo! Puppy!” And started to pet the dog’s belly which, under normal circumstances, the dog would have loved. But, being as it were drawn-and-quartered, the tickling was an added form of torment that caused the dog to bark in displeasure.

…6…

Both members of the defunct couple went to stop the boy but- feeling their grip loosen- pulled back immediately, even harder than before. The dog, pulled to a length twice its usual size, yelped and cried. The boy continued to tickle the dog, blinded by his own bliss, oblivious to what the sounds the dog made really meant.

… 5…

God might’ve over-played His hand with Abraham, but eventually, He made good on His bet. And then some… by killing his own son. I’m not here to parse out the complexities of a theological debate over whether or not Jesus was God or whether or not the crucifixion was God saving face from the bluff Abraham called him on. The point is that the Old Testament has a consistent pattern of near-misses (from Abraham to Noah to Solomon), whereas in the New Testament the mark is hit in the in the most absolute way. The son of God is killed. God Himself is murdered.

… 4…

Under too much pressure, the dog began to pee wildly. Golden streams of urine splashed onto the boy, who for a moment just stood there, not realizing what was happening, until he began to scream in terror but still did not move, maybe because he had no way to compute the fact that he was being drenched in dog piss.

The couple, equally horrified, gestured to save the boy but were still committed to holding onto the dog. Instead, they looked to me (for the first time) and said it’s my job to save the boy from the golden torrent. I wondered, where the fuck are this kid’s parents, anyway?

… 3…

Maybe he’s an orphan. Maybe two women each claimed he was their own, and brought him to a judge to decide the matter. And when the judge said the only solution was to make him a warden of the state, both mothers let it happen, that is, neither of them said that it’d be better for the boy to be in the arms of the other woman, than not at all. And so the judge had to give the boy over to the state, splitting his identity in two. And later the boy, unwatched and unloved, wandered from the social worker’s office into this elevator to find a dog, a companion, his best friend, family. And when he expressed his deep desire to love and be loved by petting the dog, it pissed on him, and he was allowed to suffer, alone.

… 2, the doors open and close …

The death of Jesus is a tragedy. Regardless of whether or not you have faith. Here you have a man, who, at the very least, had his shit figured out. And was helping others do the same. The key, He said, was that the kingdom of heaven is within you; it’s not outside in material objects, it’s not even in God Himself; heaven is a feeling, a feeling of the diving living in and through you. Radical stuff. It helped. It healed people. And for that, he was murdered. People stood around and watched him be crucified. But really, it was God’s doing. An old bet had to be made good on.

… 1, the doors open to a crowd of people in the lobby…

The couple shouted at me, “Grab the boy!” “NO!” I shouted back, “This boy is being crucified- and it’s God’s Will!”

The crowd gathered outside the elevator is flabbergasted at the scene before them: a dog being ripped apart, shaking its last drops of urine on a pee-soaked boy, the couple horrified, digging their nails into the dog’s legs, and me, calling the boy the Messiah, sneaking out the elevator as if this were my floor all along.

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