In Situ

Most people clean up from the evening’s activities before turning in for the night, but I’ve always preferred to leave things where they are, the better to reconnect with them, and with a slightly younger version of myself, on the morning after. Waking up bright and early to last night’s tea mug, with the damp bag of Sleepytime still in the bottom, reminds me that I was, just a few hours ago, in a mellow world, very different from the up-and-at-‘em condition in which I now find myself. If the Kind of Blue album jacket is still on the floor in front of the stereo, the lesson is all the more powerful. It’s like I’m looking back in time, to a yesterday that is psychologically ages ago.

Sunday night to Monday morning transitions are the most striking, and if the detritus of the weekend is still in place, I find I’m beside myself in a time-traveling sense. Cards and poker chips, beer and pretzels stare up at me from the table, stare forward at me, through time, from the weekend. If today is the first day of the school year, and last night’s Uno game is still in situ, then it calls to me across an even greater distance, from my carefree to my care-burdened self.

The just-passed hurricane reaches out to me too, from flashlights and candles gathered in the dining room, now bathed in the ironic light, and the silence, of the morning after. Of course, I don’t long for the storm as I would for the summer, but I long even so.

Once, in fact, I was able to commune, not just with my late self but with a late friend, through the medium of leftover spaghetti sauce.  She’d cooked a batch of it before going home to hang herself, and we ladled it onto our plates for weeks.

Check, Please

Seated at the next table today at China Doll were three long-retired airline pilots who were reminiscing in loud voices on airsickness of days past. They seemed to think that “regurgitate” was more acceptable table talk than “vomit” or “puke;” and thus they droned on, in sentences such as “I started to feel sick, but I didn’t regurgitate. It wasn’t until we got closer to New York that I regurgitated.”

That was going on next to us. Above us was the only PA speaker in the ceiling, and it was raining down muzak versions of “Lost in Love” and comparable classics, directly onto our food.

Despite the excellent preparation of the eggplant with garlic sauce, I found it difficult to enjoy my meal. In fact, I felt as though my whole world was melting into a swirling morass of tossed cookies and lost love, Eastern Airlines, air sickness bags, eggplant and garlic sauce. Today’s luncheon was, in the words of Mark Twain, “tedious and wretched and dismal and nasty.”

Taiwan Journal: Inner vs. Outer Peace?

Yonghe, Taiwan, ROC                         October 25, 1990

It’s been several weeks since I’ve had the occasion to awaken to the sounds of a pleasant morning shower. The patter of the rain greeted my waking ears like the voice of some old friend, missed but not forgotten, and now that nature has returned to her friendly post and benignly discouraged us from our desperate enterprises, I can once more be sated with my own place, this little room, with only a gentle heartbeat audible outside, and the clamorous exertions of the organism thus muted.

Perhaps it is necessary to be reminded that we can be serene. I’ve always loved the heaven-sent power outage or even the tropical storm; it keeps one’s perspective natural, manageable, under one’s own roof. I know I can trust myself in that shelter to keep myself dry, safe, and enheartened.

But hark, across the airway, not far at all, even in the rain, I can still hear the unpacified and oblivious father, coarsely ordering things about in his own little world, just as on any other day. For him, I imagine, there is not even the briefest repose from his contrived vicissitudes — or relationships. Owing to this man’s command or frown, the child’s forced piano playing now comes plodding across, right on schedule. Venomous parental commentary forms the background score.

And alas, there are a few crying babies, families who bring the street noise in with them, and motorcyclists keeping their dates. Yet as for me, the clouds suffice to block out the illusion of time, and, liberated from the unnatural schedule of the sun, my heart beats in relaxed tempo with the patter of the rain, constant, though often picking up and tapering off, following the currents of my interest.

Taiwan Journal: Typhoon Day

Taipei, Taiwan, ROC                                    August 30, 1990

Hearkening back to the treasured, yearned-for “snow days” of grade school, today’s typhoon day seems now to be even a greater surprise and pleasure, simply because it was so unexpected as to be not yearned for at all. The day has been passed amiably here in Yonghe, with the first house meal cooked by housers from the ground up, as well as a great deal of newspaper reading and a three hour nap.

Looking out the window, I’m amazed that there can be so much water anywhere in the world, let alone falling out of the sky. Scores of aerial funnels run off of the corrugated fiberglass roofs and window-covers of the buildings across the alley, as though the apartments were sweating profusely or otherwise manufacturing the unbelievable quantities of the stuff in some interior factory or workshop.The rain is as a curtain, or rather an endless series of curtains (hanging across, parallel, perpendicular, at every conceivable angle to me) when in the atmosphere, before it touches or piles up against anything. In contact with the earth (or under the circumstances, itself), it is a pulsating, translucent force that laps and spits through gutters and drains, or slides off rocks. Reclining in bed after my 3-hour nap, I wondered about the one (or two or three) drops in this vast world of rain that would somehow be blown horizontally by the occasional gust of wind, blown through my window garden, penetrating my screen and flying underneath the billowing curtain, to land, or to touch, as a soft waft of moisture, my legs, arms, and face.

I was stirred to attempt a poem, following the above line of verbal reasoning. My thoughts turned to a sonnet tempo and then began to examine different questions of perspective: Should I be lying down, feeling the moisture coming through the window under the billowing curtain, or should I be kneeling at the window, observing the deluge outside. Although I’d been doing both all day (as well as walking in it and ignoring it), it seemed too dynamic to include both postures in a poem that would have best been a static vignette. Fumbling with the moral of the poem (one referring to poetry itself, preferably) proved to be my ultimate undoing.

I suppose poetic states of mind should accommodate the flow of words and feelings, though not necessarily of stimuli. It seems I’m better at describing natural events with a natural [illegible].

My Dream

Here is a description of a dream I had in the early 90s in Taiwan. It is the most intricate dream I have ever experienced and can be broken down into four phases:

Phase I. I am around six years old and am standing in a desolate, Middle Eastern landscape, devoid of any man-made structure, that feels like the “Holy Land.” Nearby is a small pond, and two bearded and robed young men are fishing in it. They are fussing in a primitive way, and I am rather put off by them; looking closely, however, I see that their fishing tackle consists of long blades of grass, with neither hooks nor bait, which they are swishing through the water.

Although no one speaks, the knowledge comes echoing over the hills that God is approaching. I notice a figure emerging through waves of pulsating heat, walking down an incline toward me, as I continue to stand near the pond with the two grass-fishing men. At the wordless realization “It’s Her,” I see that God is a Native American woman, apparently in her mid-twenties. She comes to stand slightly upslope from the pond, and I follow her eyes as she regards the two fishermen: They have both landed healthy-looking, silver-skinned fish, which seem willingly to have threaded themselves through the jaw on the hookless, baitless blades of grass. The men pull their catches out of the water and begin wrapping the blades of grass around their necks, with the fish held in place at the backs of their necks, above their shoulder blades. They tie the grass around their throats, climb the few paces uphill to where God is standing, and fall to their knees before Her in devotion. I fixate on the fish: They are baking in the sun on the backs of the men’s necks, curling their tails upward as they die.

God senses my distress. Turning Her attention to me, she calms me telepathically:

“You must not feel bad for the fish, nor must you think ill of these men for their ritual. They are simple, but their hearts are pure.”

She smiles. “If this ritual is upsetting to you, you do not have to follow it. You do not have to do anything that upsets you.”

She opens Her arms and hugs me to her bare chest, stroking my shoulders, neck, and the back of my head.

I enjoy perhaps five seconds of bliss in Her embrace, but then I hear a clamor to my left, like the clanging of pots and pans. I turn in that direction, and when I do so, I become part of a changed scene; I never see the pond, the fishermen, nor God again.

Phase II. I am in the same Middle Eastern barrenness, but temples and altars now dot the slope. My age is now about fifteen or sixteen.

A portly man is shuffling up to the altar nearest me. He is dressed in a khaki military uniform and seems to be a British soldier of intermediate rank, perhaps a sergeant. He is in a fretful haste and his mess kit and canteen bang together, producing the racket that had seized my attention.

I intuit that the British army is being evicted from the Holy Land and that the sergeant wants to “grab a quick prayer” before leaving. Kneeling at the altar, he begins to pray, but his vexation remains throughout, so that he is praying and cursing at the same time.

A different sort of noise, like the clattering of dishes, rolls in from the right, and I turn in that direction.

Phase III. The landscape is unchanged, but I am now twenty.

I am looking at the Last Supper, as seen in the painting by da Vinci, except that dinner is alfresco. I advance toward the central seat, where Jesus is supposed to be, and find that he is Mark Twain. The disciples to the left and right are behaving like a pack of unruly children, elbowing each other and knocking over their drinks; and Mr. Twain wears an expression of the most grudging indulgence, brimming with sarcasm, rolling his eyes as if to say, “You’d better have mercy on these clowns, Father, because I just want to strangle them.”

I sit opposite Mr. Twain, and we begin sharing the same dish, passing the plate back and forth, helping ourselves to a little at a time. After a few rounds of this exchange, Mr. Twain scrapes off the last morsel and returns the empty plate to me. He produces another supernaturally ironic smile.

An electronic beeping from my right distracts me, and I turn to look.

Phase IV. I am twenty-four (the age at which I had the dream) and in Taiwan (where I lived when I dreamt it).

I am in a cavernous big-box warehouse store. Merchandise-laden shelves tower heavenward, reaching almost to the bare rafters, eclipsing the light. I’m standing in the checkout line, along the conveyor belt, just behind my American roommate, waiting for him to complete his purchases. However, he begins hitting on the cashier, a Taiwanese girl barely twenty. She is unresponsive and unamused. She reaches under the counter, pressing a button, at which the whole scene becomes an image on a TV screen, a video recording now serving as evidence at my roommate’s trial for sexual harassment. The End.

My interpretation: Each phase of the dream seems to correspond to a moment in world history and in the development of religion. Phase I is the Primitive phase, showing the hopeful moment when a religion of ritual evolves into a religion of love. Phase II is the British or imperialist phase, in which religion has been corrupted by power, significantly an unsustainable power. Phase III is the American phase, based on a parody of a painting, populated by quarrelsome chosen ones, and devoted to the worship of Irony, which proves an unfulfilling dish. Finally, Phase IV depicts the post-historical age in which we live: materialist, litigious, godless, and loveless.

The Hormonal Origins of Campus Radicalism

A former student recently asked me about campus radicalism, and here is how I replied:

Dear ________,

The far-outness on campus is real and has been at least since the 80s, when I attended [my alma mater]. It was 99% a left-wing phenomenon, but some ‘conservatives’ got in the act too by pretending to be victims and marginalized on campus. Most of the stuff that happened at school back then would count as funny and charming today.

As to how this has happened, there are many explanations. My theory is the hormonal theory, which calls attention to social and sexual factors. Essentially, leftism is much cooler and sexier than conservatism or moderation or classical liberalism. As a result, the most radical people on campus will tend to attain social prominence. At [my alma mater], the ‘in crowd’ was composed of radical lesbian feminists. Conversely, heterosexual white males found themselves on the wrong side of history and thus could never be cool. As compensation for this uncoolness, the heterosexual white males had to present themselves as supercommunists in order to get any attention and acceptance at all. In my case, having crushes on the lizzies made the problem worse. (Actually, it goes back farther than that. Even in high school, I found that the more radical I sounded in class, the more attention I would get, from girls and also from teachers. Either way I was greatly encouraged.) The male college student trying to get laid by lesbians writes paper after paper, each more pinko than the last. If he becomes an academic himself, he’s already developed habits of thinking and an academic specialty that cannot be so easily changed. On campus or off, if there is any kind of lefty ruckus going on, I guarantee that at the bottom of it is a middle-class, heterosexual, white male trying to get a feminist in the sack.

 

 

Lost and Found

By some miracle, a bookmark that I acquired in Taiwan in 1989 has remained in my possession, showing very little wear and tear, in spite of my indifference to it. I always thought it was cool – Its character style and the fact that it contains a quotation from Socrates are very evocative of Taiwan – but I never took any care of it. (After all, it’s just a bookmark.) Over the years, I occasionally employed it in its intended capacity, paying it no more mind than if it had been a shop receipt or piece of Kleenex, and then, the book read, I would leave it lying around for the next time. I don’t know how many places I’ve lived since 1989, but the bookmark survived them all.

Recently, while reading Jonathan Manthorpe’s Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, I remembered the bookmark and decided that it would complete my experience. Then, after enjoying both book and bookmark, I resolved to make the latter a mandatory accompaniment to my upcoming immersion in Taiwanese fiction. With my determination fixed, I sought for the bookmark, to make sure everything was prepared; but I could not locate it. It was on no dusty nightstand or bookshelf, where it always was, where all the other bookmarks were. I checked my office, my car, and even less likely places, in increasing despair.  I realized that it was an irreplaceable antique, of tremendous personal value, the central artifact of my youth. I felt bereft and aggrieved, like a man missing a limb. I slept very little.

The following morning, I dashed to my car and arrived at the library, well before opening. As soon as the door was unlocked, I charged inside and implored the young man at the circulation desk to search every cart where a book returned the previous day might be. Finding the Manthorpe on the fourth or fifth cart, I flipped through the pages and there found the object of my quest, preserved as though in amber. I returned home and, at the foot of my bed, wept tears of gratitude.

Here is what it says:

HELP WANTED

“The most promising successful people are not those who possess uncommon talent but are, rather, the ones who are most adept at exploiting every opportunity for self-development and discovery.”

— Su-ge-la-ti

1989 Campus Career Fair

Another Paean to the Rain

Yesterday was the start of a new semester, a fact which would have dismayed me, were it not for the darkened sky and cold winter rain which blessed it and made it holy. I was so grateful for it I almost cried, and I embraced the day with hope and joy.

Listening to the lovely pattering on the roof of my car, it struck me that the rain is spiritually centripetal, drawing all who are affected by it into a community, gathering all of humanity under an umbrella. The dreadful sunshine, contrariwise, is centrifugal, casting us outward, atomized, each to his lonely own.