Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Barthelme, Snow White

Donald Barthelme, Snow White
Atheneum, 1967

In 1967 the New Yorker devoted nearly an entire issue to publishing Barthelme’s novel Snow White.  It is inconceivable that they would do something so peculiar and interesting now. (Just today I saw that the New Yorker plans to offer novellas electronically.  Which they clearly wish us to believe is terribly innovative and daring -- or, perhaps 10% as daring as they were 50 years ago.)

When I started reading Barthelme a few years ago, the general opinion seemed to be that the stories were what mattered, what held up.  I read 60 Stories, then 40 Stories, then read them both again.  Hungry to read something fresh, I decided to risk this novel and was a little surprised to find it an absolute lark.

Enamoured as I am of Barthelme’s non-stop high stakes language play, I guess I had worried that a novel might be just too much, too exhausting.  I wish I’d understood that this novel is actually even more broken up, more fragmentary and poem-like, than most of his stories.  You could think of it as a collection of 100 rants, or 100 flash fictions if flash fictions were any good, or a even a book of 100 prose poems, if prose poems got off their high horse, fled brunch, and got smashed.

Don B’s brilliant language wizardry is melded to events that are fun and hilarious and somehow just right.  What a joy to throw 6-packs of Miller High Life through the windscreen of a man named Fondue!  (I assert that the courtroom drama that ensues is my favorite court scene in literature -- though I will admit it is somewhat irregular.)

Best of all: let’s poison the prince for once!  Yes, please!  I shouted.  Give Snow White a break!  (Or, as she puts it herself, “I myself am so buffeted by recent events and non-events, that if events give me even one more buffet, I will simply explode.”)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Duras, Emily L.

Marguerite Duras, Emily L. translated by Barbara Bray Random House, 1989
Emily L. is for confirmed fans of Duras. This is the advanced course, suitable only for the devoted -- among whom I am numbered. Reading Emily L., I sometimes shook my head, laughed or argued. “Over the top, Madame Duras! Random!” Yet -- I’m glad this book exists and I’m delighted (in a despairing, wine-soaked Duras sort of way) to have read it. Does it make sense to say: “It is not a great novel, but it is wonderful to read”? That is how I felt, on the lucky night I consumed it, along with a bottle of cheap red wine. (Could this book be read while entirely sober? Possible, presumably, but not ideal.) If you can, read a few pages before purchasing the book. If you’re not on the wavelength, you might find it senseless. If you are on the wavelength -- enjoy. And don’t forget to also drink plenty of water. From pg. 29: “One sensed they must have lived together through some adversity, and through it have come to know one another so well that they arrived at a common being, in good and ill, crime and innocence. Until the ultimate end in a common death, which so far they’d always avoided, for some reason that didn’t matter.”

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Discussion of Difficulties in the Narration of Sexual Success Stories

A Discussion of Difficulties 
in the Narration of 
Sexual Success Stories.

Experiments in total uncertainty continue.

Here in Bangkok, in a budget room bare as a hospital corridor, a mewling wish can nearly always be found: the wish to be told I am doing it right, proceeding correctly, or at very least not wholly wasting my time, the swiftly dwindling remainder of this, my only life. Console me, comfort me, hold my hand, pleads that part.  Show me something that is not all wrong.

Anxiety is nearly always present, squalling in the corner, wearing the same sweat-stained shirt, the one that reads:  Isn’t there something I am supposed to be doing?

As you have presumably already noticed, the universe is wholly uninterested in doling out assurances.

Nonetheless, some events do occur that are both spectacular and preposterous.  It is not known if these events can be said to constitute guidance.

A vital and contiguous issue is whether “common sense” may be considered a reliable navigational device, based as it is on what is likely to happen, as determined by logical inference, whereas it appears that, in this particular zone, which I call home, the likely almost never occurs.  Almost impossible is the rule and it is confounding to proceed in this fashion, all the time asking oneself, “What is almost impossible today?”

No doubt it’s obvious where this is headed.

The following is what is commonly referred to as a sexual success story.  Indeed, it belongs to the highest category of such.  It is a story of spectacular sexual success.

An odd attribute of these stories is that, while we may greatly cherish our own sexual success stories, it is almost always highly unpleasant to entertain the sexual success stories of others.  It is even worse than hearing about their dreams the night before.  It is as bad or worse than listening to the details of the deaths of their pets.

Part of the reason for this is no doubt envy.  Which is why I have chosen to make available, upon request, the gentleman’s contact information.  If I had a chance, then so do you.  Not that much help is needed, at least in locating the gentleman in question.  He is one of the most visible and well-known personages in Bangkok’s gay community.  His photos and videos are widely available and anyone who likes (I presume) may make an appointment with him for a rate which (I hear rumored) can now be bargained down to somewhat less than a thousand dollars a night.

Here a few words of clarification are required.  The gentleman in question maintains, at the PlanetRomeo site, two profiles.  One personal, one professional.  In other words, one for his escort business, another for his personal use.  On an evening I’d assumed would be as ordinary as any other, quiet and just a little sad, I received a message from him.  He asked if I wanted to have sex.  I read the message five times, took a swig of gin, paced my cheap room and answered.  He had contacted me using his personal profile.  At no point did I admit my knowledge of his other profile, nor of his professional life.    

I believe that the primary reason why sexual success stories are commonly regarded as detestable is that they are generally seen as an attempt by the narrator to boast of his or her prowess or attributes.  This despite that fact that the most ardent distributors of sexual success stories are commonly persons whom one would rather not touch.  Not even on the shoulder.  Not even while wearing gloves.

Sexual success is widely believed to have some connection to the charms of the narrator, an assumption which reduces these stories to a particularly sticky and discomfiting form of boasting.  When in fact sexual success may have little or nothing to do with one’s own attributes.  This is particularly true in the highest category, the aforementioned story of spectacular sexual success.

To put it another way: some people go to school, gain experience, become employed in first-rate positions and earn an excellent salary.  In the same way, some people are loved because they merit being loved.  I reckon that somewhere out there must be people who get what they deserve, although I cannot say I know any personally.

Reality, however, may also proceed in a far different fashion.  For example, some people receive a lottery ticket which their schizophrenic aunt has inserted in a re-used birthday card.  The mad aunt has remembered the birthday incorrectly.  Her handwriting is entirely heterogeneous, as is commonly observed in the handwriting of schizophrenics.  The ticket enclosed turns out to be worth 27.5 million dollars.

Some things make sense.  Others things that just go ahead and happen.

If a red-headed girl on the edge of your town is diagnosed with a form of cancer so rare that only fourteen cases of it have been documented since 1968 and you say about that adorable girl, as her hair is shorn, “Obviously she did something to deserve it” then every person in your town and county will decide that you are an asshole.  And indeed, those persons will be entirely correct.

Just as people have been known to die due to the untimely arrival of a meteorite, or because of internal bleeding caused by a puncture wound resulting from the accidental ingestion of a toothbrush, so, too, may episodes of spectacular sexual success occur.

Thus, all of my correspondence with the Porn Star Sex God, the man generally considered the most sexually magnetic in Thailand -- that is, if you like them tall, muscular, tattooed, and brutish in an almost menacing fashion transformable into adorable total boyishness by the advent of a smile -- is remarkably akin to the correspondence which would ensue if I learned I had been awarded a MacArthur genius grant for my achievements in the field of Chemistry.

To the Estimable Board of the Directors of the MacArthur Foundation:  Although I thank you warmly, from the depths of my heart, for your praise and generosity, I must state, up front, that I have studied only a single trimester of chemistry, in which my performance, though certainly well-intentioned, was entirely average.  As for Math, I gave up after Pre-Calculus, and my surrender, I sincerely believe, was not the cause for a single person’s disappointment, but only a source of relief to all concerned.  Thus, although I would very much like for this prize to be genuine, it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that you have in fact made a postal error.  Respectfully Yours.

Just the same, the Porn Star Sex God wrote back that he intended to come and see me at once.  In imitation of the prophets of the Old Testament, I wrote back revealing my poverty under Heaven, as well as the meagerness and paucity of my everything.

In the interest of honesty, humility and fairness, I probably should have gone on refusing forever.  I know some people who are strenuously honorable in that way.  If you try to give them a hundred bucks they will turn you down forever, no matter how much they may need it, no matter how much you have it to spare: they have their honor and they will refuse that cash forever.

I admit that I am not one of those honorable and inflexible persons.  You offer me money and I’ll refuse it.  You repeat the offer and I’ll refuse it again.  You offer a third time and, goddamn, I’m gonna take that money.  After all, I have acquiesced, in the course of my life, to a vast amount of bad news.  I don’t mean to complain -- I know you have, too.  When bad news arrives I make space for it with all the other bad news.  And do you imagine it’s easy to have this face, this gait, this voice, this lamentable excuse for a personality?  HA!  Just the same, some good things do insist on happening, stubborn as a plane falling out of the sky, and then, I figure, you have to let them.

The fifth time the Porn Star Sex God wrote to say he wished to come over, that he was already nearby, I said, “OK, give me ten minutes to shower” and I guarantee that I cleaned as thoroughly in those ten minutes as ever a person hath showered.

After I showered, I got dressed.  Even if he was going to see the paucity of my everything, there was no need to display it all at once upon his arrival.  Then I sat in the hotel’s cheap but sturdy leatherette armchair and I prayed to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, gods and goddesses, faeries, angels and budget hotel spirits I could think of, begging them to please lend to me fortitude sufficient for enduring the terrors of my present situation.

Here’s something I reckon isn’t mentioned nearly often enough:  the fact that the onset of good fortune is very often entirely terrifying.  Especially when it’s something you suspect you don’t deserve.  How many people, upon learning that their dreams have come true, must swiftly excuse themselves and hurry to the bathroom to sob or to puke?

Please understand, I don’t mean to complain.  It’s just that the vast majority of my training. . .  has not been in the field of good news.  I felt I had been caught unprepared.  Pardon me, I wanted to say, Could you please come back after I’ve had a year of personal training and cosmetic dentistry? 

But that is not how fortune works.  And good fortune, it turns out, is every bit as inexorable as bad.

I couldn’t sit.  I had to stand.  I had to pretend I was doing something that had to be done.  I brushed my teeth for the sixth time.  I drank the last of the mouthwash.  I hid my shoes, because aren’t my shoes embarrassing?  I fixed the pillows again.  I considered looking in the mirror again but decided against it: the doctors and I had done all that we could.

The doorbell rang like the ceiling exploding.  I opened the door.  I’m sure my smile was the smile of nice people at gunpoint.  I did my best, i.e. I neither screamed nor vomited nor fainted dead away.

You will not believe, nor can I express, how very much more beautiful, more sensual and dazzling, the Porn Star Sex God is in real life than he appears in his photos or videos.  Prolonged howling seems to me the only natural response to such an overload of voluptuousness.  Yet howling seemed at that moment inadvisable.

The Porn Star Sex God was carrying a plastic bottle of lemonade, from which he paused now to take a sip.  (The bottle has been kept, of course, and is now preserved in perpetuity in my personal Museum of Sacred Objects.)  His face flickered between porn star stern and luminous puppyhood.

In the presence of such a personage only two urges were possible.  One was to have mad crazed bestial sex.  The second, somewhat stronger, was to evaporate by apologetic force, in sheer power of shame.

The way I figure it is this: there are men I admire in porn because to be in their actual presence would be entirely too terrifying.  When I gape at porn I crave not only the nakedness of another man, but also my own disappearance.

What would the Porn Star Sex God do now?  Would he shake his head and, with a slight, sad, smile, step courteously backwards out of the room?  Or, would he explain that he was running a special low-season special and that for just 250 dollars I could receive 40 minutes of his time?  Because surely I had not imagined I would get this for free!

I would say, No, I did not imagine.  Of course not.  I seriously did not imagine.  Yes, this had to be what was about to occur.  As so often happens, money would now resolve the mystery.  Money was about to explain everything.  He had simply wished to offer, in person, the opportunity for a discount.  He was, after all, a high-class escort, perhaps the best known in Bangkok.

I understood intuitively that the Porn Star Sex God had chosen sex work not because he was some kind of bad or low-class person, certainly not, nor because he had no other options, but simply because, everywhere he went, nearly all ambulatory mammals clamored and pleaded for sex with him, until he had finally chosen to acquiesce and adopt a professional response.

But that was not what happened next.  He did not mention money and, though I waited for it through all that followed, he never did.  Instead he grinned at me and said, “So, where’re you from?”  Then he noticed the small altar parked on the mini-fridge and asked if I was a Buddhist.  (He did not say whether the Buddha had sent him.)  He ran his thick finger across my stubbled cheek.  I must have looked as though I was about to cry.

He put his arms around me and held me tight against him.  He was so much taller, so much bigger than I was, and I felt as though a giant were holding me as we stood in that bare, cheap, too-bright room and I began to settle down.  I really would have liked to brush my teeth a seventh time.  I let it go.

As for the rest, it happened by itself and I consented to it, if consent is the word, the same way you might consent if the airplane in which you sit begins without warning to fall out of the sky, to dive straight down, like a meteor plunging, faster and faster, and all you can do is try
to not be too afraid and try
to pay careful
to what has,
for some

Monday, November 09, 2015

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Outside and Subterranean Poetry

Barbaric, Vast & Wild
A Gathering of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present
Edited with commentaries by Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman
Black Widow Press, 2015

Everyone who styles themselves an outsider should be required to buy this book.  It’d rocket up the bestseller list and surely we would become, along with our creations, more interesting and more tolerant, dashing and emboldened and enriched.  The books I love most are those that grant me entrance to an entire world; this is such a book.  Not since M.A. Caws’ Surrealist Painters and Poets have I found an anthology that so deserved to be called a treasure house.

‘Anthologize’ is a dull word for Rothenberg’s daring feats of inclusion, a heroic attempt to somehow make a book of all that has been left out.  Here are texts from the inside of pyramids, excerpts of Zen tales, Gnostic gospels, Pali scriptures and Hildegard of Bingen’s private language.  What better way to read a book than in a continuous state of surprise!  I did not expect: Nostradamus, Mayan spells, a brilliant translation of Dante, Nietzsche’s last mad letters, Marina Sabina, Robert Walser’s microscripts.  Here is much that is strange, horny, godmad, crazed, obscure, direct.  Canonized outsiders are present: Blake, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Genet, but they are outnumbered by the excluded, by texts from the schizophrenic and psychotic, the paralyzed or deaf, from those locked in, locked up and locked out.

For those of us with non-normative bodies and minds, this book is crucial.  It is a source of solace and encouragement, as well as a reminder of how much brilliance comes from way, way outside the margins.  With any luck it may also prove to be an antidote and tonic for a time when artists and writers seem to be in a hurry to produce sensible, reasonable, marketable commodities.

Only the great Rothenberg would have known or dared to create such an anthology.  Arguing for it is like arguing for the dictionary: a book as delightful as it is necessary.    


11 New Small American Stories

American Home

After many years of wandering, I no longer have a home in America.  Instead I visit friends -- some of whom are, by now, quite well-to-do.  Not that they think they are well-to-do.  Inevitably they will confide, quite solemnly, that they are only just getting by.  Despite my forlorn appearance and strange history, they are really most hospitable.

“I am SO sorry!  We have a few errands to run.  We’ll be gone a few hours.  Will you be OK by yourself?  You won’t be bored?  This is the dog.  Here is the garden.  This is the pool.  Here is the hot tub.  Sorry the gym equipment is fairly basic.  This is the beer fridge.  Here is the liquor cabinet.  This is how you use the coffee maker.  For ice you push here.  That’s the computer, it hooks up to the TV.  Careful not to confuse the hand pumps!  This one is hand sanitizer.  The other is silicon lube.  Here in the nightstand are all of my toys.  Have you ever seen one that does this?  My friends joke I’ve got the largest porn collection outside the Vatican!  Are you sure you’ll be OK by yourself?  Do you get nervous?  Do you get bored?  If you start feeling down, don’t be shy, take one of these.  All these are for nerves.  I just mix and match.  You’re sure you’ll be OK?  Please -- make yourself at home!”

Then, of course, I feel guilty.  Because I love my friends.  I love their company.  I came to see them.  Certainly I don’t want anything to happen to them.  I want them to thrive and flourish, to go forth and succeed in the world.  And I want them to return.  I do.  I want them to come home.  Eventually.  Not too soon.  The first thing I do, when I am finally left alone, is pray that they will be delayed.


My original idea was to become a big, big success.  Just as, you know, a way of making sense out of everything.


Amazing what one single daiquiri can do for a shopping mall.  True, it’s 32 ounces, frozen, and made with tequila but still, moments ago the air-conditioning was the only thing good in this whole place and now it’s all one big sparkly candy store!  A heavenly procession exits the shoe store and ascends.  Tall men in white suits, gorgeous women the entire width of the escalator.  In front of the hot pretzels a man has burst into song.  All of the rest of us are clapping along.

-- Notice --

I’m not going to attempt dating again until I meet someone who understands that -- disappointment is just the way that it works.  I’m disappointing, I’m reliably disappointing, just same as everything else in the universe.  It doesn’t have anything to do with me personally.  

Hypothetical darling, we could still go about loving each other, if we put our minds to it.  But, no, everyone wants someone just like the guy in the video they’ve got in their phone, except their guy isn’t an escort, he has a good job, lots of money, excellent credit, a home here, an apartment in Europe.  He’s interesting but not nerdy, loves to travel, stylish but not fussy, spiritual but not religious, thick and uncut, loves to party but doesn’t overdo it, is due to inherit.

I am so tired of that guy.  We are both of us imaginary, but in somewhat different ways.  Therefore, although I have consistently done absolutely anything to get laid for the last -- a moment please, I’m calculating -- 27 ½ years, tonight I’ll stay home and not attempt to resemble the guy on anyone’s phone.  I say, let someone else disappoint them.


The man on the phone asks, “So -- what turns you on about transforming into an animal?”  

I want to say, Hey man, this is your call, your fantasy, I’m just going along with it.  I want to say, Dude!  Is this part of your graduate thesis?

But I don’t say any of this.  Gradually we turn into horses.


What most people want, it appears, is a movie without electricity.  A sensitive rendering.  A compendium of perspectives and issues.  Astonishingly, it appears people think that something ought to happen.  (Isn’t too much happening already?)  It’s TV, it seems to me, that people want, but without the noise or commercials.

But that is not what I want.

I am in search of a strange museum.


“Please.  No.  You haven’t seen all of them yet.”

Says the former soldier, boyish and lean even at 50, even after the Afghanis blew him up.  The government rebuilt his hip and his ass.  Also, the poison used by one side or the other gave him “a small case of cancer” in both of his lungs.

He keeps a cooler of beer by his bed in case he wakes up in the night.  The more he drinks the more his Irish accent comes out.  He doesn’t want anyone to touch him, not in the bar, not until he’s made up his mind it’s completely all right.

Then this grinning horny kid comes along, ready to go home with him, touches the side of his face and says, “I love scars!”

The King of Thailand

The belief that one possesses psychic powers is a remarkably common delusion.  Only at its further reaches does it attract attention.  (Most everyone is fairly sure they know what their mother, lover and dog are thinking.)  I know one strenuously spiritual lady who prophesies the collapse of the global banking system.  Within two weeks.  November at the latest.  The banks persist; she goes on being wrong without noticing.  Some day, I assume, the banks will finally fail.  And even when we’re all broke, she’ll be pleased to be found infallible.

This morning I woke up entirely certain that Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, had died.  I had that precise pain which could only mean the king was dead.  The taxi drivers all say the war will start the day the king dies.  I checked, he hadn’t died, no doubt he will die soon.

For years I loved a man: you know how it goes, the more I loved him, the less he loved me.  Anyway, the uses he desired for me were not those which I desired.  He still wished to tell me, endlessly, how terrible it was to be a telephone service representative.  For a games company, the kind people gamble on and go crazy.  Basically it was an electronic sweatshop.  Took advantage of refugees from the European electronic collapse.  

From him I learned that nowadays, if people wish to communicate, they send a text.  Actual phone calls are only for abuse.  Basically the company had a rule that if he wasn’t chewed out at least 30 times a day he went on probation, was ineligible for promotions and bonuses.

None of this was pleasant to hear, but it was all real, and I was willing to hear it, if only he loved me a little.  He couldn’t tell me he loved me a little.  He could only say it was very hard job.  I grew resentful.  I dared him to say a kind word.  He looked at me like I’d asked him to violate his religion.   

Finally I stopped writing to him.  Since he didn’t love me.  He didn’t write back.  He didn’t do what he was supposed to do and discover he loved me when I was gone.  As for me, I still love him, every day, but just a little, the way some people go on smoking just 1 or 2 cigarettes every day for years.  Honestly, he wouldn’t have needed to love me much.  I would have flown to him if he had said I could make him even 10% happier.  Which really isn’t very happy at all.  But he never said anything like that.  

When I think of the man that I love, I know he is suffering deeply.  Not because of me.  I was not particularly significant, but for other reasons.  I do not want him to be unhappy.  I want him to be happy, even if it means he hardly ever thinks of me and, when he does, I am only evidence of his humble origins, of how very far he’s come.

But he is not happy.  He is anxious and depressed -- to a degree which may even be dangerous.  Also he’s ill.  Not direly, but in a miserable and persistent way.  I am certain of this, of his feeling, and of my ability to know what he feels, even though he is thousands of miles away and we have ceased to write or to speak.  

I believe that I have psychic powers.  This is a remarkably common delusion, which calls attention to itself only in extremes.  I know what he feels, even though he does not write to me, does not speak to me, does not love me, does not seek my help, does not want me back.  I believe I have psychic powers.  (No rule says powers have to be useful.)  I am delusional.  I am entirely delusional.  But I am delusional and I AM RIGHT.


This mop-headed tie-dye teen opening the screen door with his shoulder because he’s got iced coffees in both hands, calling back to his brother

I was talking to ME.


I need to do dishes but this palmetto bug won’t leave the sink.  When he finally does climb out, his next choice is to perch on the sudsy tip of the orange dish soap.  Hello, I am trying not to kill you.  Please cooperate!

99 Years

Not because I understood. Not in the least. Just the opposite, in fact. I have a congenital disability. I was born without a big picture. Other people have one. They try to lend me theirs but it doesn’t work. It’s like when I tried to learn to watch television. I wanted to watch with everyone else. I tried but I could not be convinced. Wanted to be, but couldn’t. So I take notes. Because it doesn’t make sense. Nothing fits. Because there is no way of drawing a line under anything. Because the story is false. Yet it all seems so helplessly urgent! When you don’t understand what is being said you must struggle to catch every word. Because the room refused to stop spinning, I took notes. Here, then, are my attempts at a raft. Incomprehension. Is the basis. Confusion. An abiding and adoring panic. That sea. What country are they calling this now? And what am I supposed to be -- don’t even say it. All I know is what the woman at the next table is saying. Between bites of her donut. “This is the job. My father is 99 years old. There is absolutely nothing wrong with him.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


for Sara Levine

I dreamt I was taking an important exam at my former workplace, a medical school in Tokyo.  I am not certain what subject I was being tested on -- something like the history of the psychology of the sciences.  It was, I realized at that moment, an extremely important exam.  Why hadn’t I studied? 

“What’s the most important formula we’re supposed to remember?” I whispered to my nearest classmate, but it was too late.  The test was already being passed out.

The first part of the test appeared to be reading comprehension.  As a child, I had excelled when tested in this way.  This had led to an assumption that I was intelligent which had taken years to fully dispel.  

Now -- there were so many words I didn’t know.  One of the very first sentences included the world kentrobarbative.  What did kentrobarbative mean again?  Why hadn’t I studied!  Considering the condition of my life, how did I ever imagine that I could afford to be careless?

I was relieved to see that a column on the right side of the page included hints, notes and definitions.  But I quickly determined that none of the clues were the clues that I needed.  For example, there was a reminder that a stool was a kind of low chair near to the floor.  There was nothing about kentrobarbative.  

Kentrobarbative.  For some reason I thought the word might describe an emotional state.  Was it something about remaining centered?  (Amid barbarism?)  But then -- why the ‘K’? I looked at the word suspiciously.  Was it the name of a chemical process?  It seemed like that sort of word.  All I knew was that it was an adjective.  My life was definitely not going to get better anytime soon.

I woke up still racking my brain -- what was it, what did it mean?  My body was flooded with shame and anxiety.  I remembered I was 42 years old.  I remembered I had one front tooth that jutted out like a fang.  I remembered I was no one’s beloved.  I remembered kentrobarbative.

Overjoyed even while still saturated with misery, I dove out of bed.  Where was my clipboard?  Where was my pen?  I dumped my bag onto the floor, grabbed implement and scrap.  Lucky life: I was awake, the paper was real, the pen worked.

In block letters I wrote: KENTROBARBATIVE.  There it was.  I had retrieved it, hauled it out.  An actual dream word, dream vocabulary, delivered now into the waking world.  I admired it.  I wrote adj. beside it.  What I needed now was research.

What could it possibly mean, kentrobarbative?

Ken is an uncle, is a doll, and, if you’ve ever slept around in Tokyo, you know that everyone is named Ken.  Drunk amid the bright lights of Shinjuku, it seems you have so many options.  But, no matter who you go home with, you go home with Ken.  Even if you get busy in an alley, you’re in an alley with Ken.

TRO is a temporary restraining order, as one of my friends had needed recently, while splitting up with a boyfriend.  TRO also stands for the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization, active where I live now.  Tro are the traditional stringed instruments in Cambodia, where frankly I’d rather be.  Although the Taree Airport, in New South Wales, Australia, is currently only served by one airline, the city council has been lauded for their success in attracting investors and the future is bright for the airport with the baggage tag TRO.

There are three villages in Greece named Kentro: in Ventzio, Amaliada, and Messenia.  I have never been to Greece, but it should be admitted that I recently had a significant crush on a Greek woman with a highly spiritual nature.  Of all the faces I have ever seen, hers is the most transformed by a smile.  When, while walking in the street, I saw her stern face, I was never sure that it was her.  Tentatively, I would call her name and she would turn to me, smiling, my beautiful friend.

Certainly I hope there is no connection to Kentron, the South African arms company, now known as Denel Dynamics.  On the other hand, it is very likely the word does bear some relation to the Kentrosaurus, a genus of Stegosaurian dinosaur from the late Jurassic period, known for the imposing double row of plates running along its neck and back, which merged into spikes on the hip and tail.

Mark Mancini writes, “Perhaps the least cuddly dinosaur of all time, Kentrosaurus boasted some horrific weaponry -- and a rather perplexing sex life.”  A male making a careless or ill-timed approach would likely have castrated himself on some of his beloved’s harder, sharper parts.  Or, as Mancini points out, “When your partner has gigantic, upward-facing spikes all the way from her hips to her tail tip, making love requires caution.”

Barbative, of course, is a “real” word.  By which I mean it is a word currently in use in the waking world -- though I am quite certain that I have never used the word myself.  Barbative: harshly critical or blunt, sarcastic.  It also bears mentioning that my stories are often populated by people going out of their minds and those people are often named Barbara.  Even when they’re not, I wish they were.  Named Barbara, I mean.  Barbara is the first name that comes to mind.

Barbiturates, too, have featured in my life now and then, though mostly in an aspirational way.  You can mail-order enough from Mexico to see you out.  Isn’t it a sweet relief, just to know you have the option?  God bless Mexico.

I am not certain that we are arriving at clarity.  I am not sure that we should.  Once a meaning is certain, what do we do?  Peddle kentrobarbative online, try to get it into magazines, hope people on the street   start using it.  Petition for kentrobarbative to be shoved into Oxford.  Poor kentrobarbative.  It’ll just be a tool.  Same as all the other words.  Ignored or misused.  Life’s not so easy when you’ve got five syllables.  Pretty soon the youth of America are texting, “Fuk! dats kbt!!!”

Perhaps it is more wise and skillful to protect ketrobarbative from certainty and not shackle it with a final definition.  On the other hand, if kentrobarbative has no meaning at all, it is difficult to use.  We are effectively handing kentrobarbative over to the language poets, where it will be forced to bore audiences to tears.

We may choose to provide kentrobarbative a meaning which is strictly provisional.  A meaning which is only for us and for now.  For example:

kentrobarbative: adj. the uncertainty which is inherent when relating to dream words.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Notification Day
or, Salvation at Random

Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India

I am waiting for a letter from the man I’ve loved passionately for years and I’m pretty sure it’s going to say he doesn’t love me.  Rather than wait in my room, I figured I might as well go to the library.  Soon as I get the letter my inner life’s going to be defunct for six months at least.  I might as well look after it now.

The library is brand-new, white-walled with white ceiling fans and broad windows that look out on the trees and the goshalas, or cow sheds.  The library’s collections have not changed since the move to the new building -- scriptures and commentaries, as well as whatever books hippie backpackers have left behind since the Sixties.  Lots of astrology, prophecy, flower remedies, that sort of thing.  It’s the right place if you’re looking for evidence of reincarnation or the nitty-gritty of astral travel.  Allopathy, on the other hand, merits hardly a footnote.  Here, too, are the complete works of gurus long since turned to poison: Osho, Adi Da, Sathya Sai, and the Maharishi all have their own sections.  Not far from the section ‘General Saints’ are four rows of Agatha Christie.  Hot season afternoons in Tamil Nadu are brutal and endless.  The ashram library is not without mercy.  

Just the same, some hippies did read real books, god bless them.  So far I’ve found Beckett, Borges, Duras, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Genet, Machado de Assis.  Or, from more nearby: Mahasweta Devi, G.V. Desani, both Nirad and Amit Chaudhuri, both Anita and Kiran Desai, Pather Panchali.  Like someone anticipating a long illness I’m stockpiling them now.  There are no drugs and no liquor in this holy town.  I figure I can read one paperback and gnaw on another.

Back here in the corner I can hide.  I’ve figured out which switch turns on the nearest overhead fan.  This is the history and science section.  No one ever comes here.  True, if I leaned to the right I’d be in healing, astrology, tarot and psychology -- but I am not going to do that.  I’m going to lean to the left and rest my head against the Q shelf.  (Education & Social Welfare)

Stuck in my head, extremely loud, is the very end of “Long and Winding Road”, you know, the soaring orchestral part.  I know opinion is mixed on this, with some preferring a more pared-down version, but I’ve always loved the orchestra, the soaring, the final plea.  Except for now.  Now it has become excruciating.  Once is lovely.  On repeat you really hear the desperation.

Today I expect to receive official notification that I am not loved.  How about that!  Living in an a holy town, one thing you learn is how the mind operates.  For example, the mind likes to have official notification.  It wasn't enough to just suspect.  Oh no.  I had to ask.  I even went so far as to demand an answer.  So if any point we need to ask, Whose fault is this? then -- we have our answer.

We were chatting on Facebook, my beloved and I, tossing messages back and forth, heavy on the emoticons, and I wrote something like, “By the way, I noticed you never say I’m glad you came or I miss you or Come back.  It was just one of those thoughts that slip in on the side.  He’s just one of those men who never say how they feel.  Anyway how could he, when I am all the time I love you love you love you

The message came back: I’ve been meaning to write you a letter.  I slammed the computer shut; I slid it under the bed to punish it, but then, of course, I couldn’t sleep, not a wink.  Finally I got up and dug through my luggage for the Xanax I keep for emergencies.  I allocate myself 6 Xanax a year, which I think is pretty fucking impressive considering life and the way that life feels.

I have three Xanax left but I couldn’t find them.  Instead I found the keyring with the keys to his apartment and the picture of us at the company Christmas party.  Shaking was about to start, I knew, so I just went ahead and stayed there on the floor.  I thought this was a pretty gruesome move, on God’s part.  I would have just let me find the Xanax, if I were God, and advertised myself as merciful.

This is a very holy town.  Did I say that already?  No liquor, no drugs, no orgies.  At least not that I’ve been able to find.  So if I want to feel drastically better, there’s not much I can do besides throw myself in front of a truck.  What, then, to shove at grief, what chair to brace against that door?  I am considering an in-depth study of The Norton Anthology of Classical Literature, from Homer to St. Augustine.  I will take detailed notes.  Doesn’t that sound commendable?  As one might guess from my location, I am quite a spiritual person.

We’ll leave out that my first choice involves a sling, a mixed grill of some of the more high caliber drugs, and losers, addicts, whores. . . whoever’s available really.  Since that’s not possible, here is the Norton Anthology.  Sin is hard to locate here, at least for the non-Tamil speaker.  The only thing that comes to mind is eating eggs.  Eggs are a big no-no for orthodox Hindus.  I know a place where you can get an omelet.  And I would totally go and eat 20 omelets, if I thought it might take the edge off, even just a little.

I am one of those people gone loose in the world.  One of those who were never quite firmly affixed to begin with.  At a certain point several years ago it was just easier for everyone if I ceased to matter.  It was even easier for me.  People think it takes money to wander.  It’s bizarre how little money it takes.  What you need most is to have almost no connections, no roots, no definite aims.  You can wander for years.  

For years the man I love had been saying, “Come.  Stay a few months.  We’ll see how it goes.”  I went, I loved him, I left when my visa expired.  I took the test.  Now I will receive my scores.  The next thing up is seeing.    

I’m a tremendously spiritual person.  Unfortunately I can’t remember any of it just now.  Here instead is Sheena Easton.  The song that goes “I’m Almost Over You”.  It’s a joke song, isn’t it?  Didn’t realize that until now.  Look it up: the original lyrics (now in The Torch Song Hall of Fame, Akron, OH) go, I’m to-tal-ly de-ci-ma-ted.  My heart is hamburger mash.  Then the money and marketing people got involved and said, “Hey, can you tone it down a little?”  They kept pushing and pushing until it became “I’m Almost Over You.”  The feeling however remains the same.  I’m learning so much!  Thank you, this is all so tremendously valuable.

The library of the ashram is known primarily for works pertaining to the great saint of jnana yoga, as well as for a large collection of texts regarding the philosophy of advaita, with interpretations ranging from the most classical to most dubious.  Advaita is popular now.  Now itself is popular now.  People are making big money from something so quick it can’t be said to have any duration at all.  Yet there doesn’t seem to be any getting out of now either.  It’s an odd world, is it not, into which we’ve been marooned?

He didn’t seem to approve of anyone so I thought I I’d better check his opinion of me.  It didn’t seem masochistic when I did it.  He talks about how all his friends are falling apart.  It depresses him.  He says that everyone he knows just get worse and worse.  He says that, of all the people he knows, he is the only one getting better.

It’s true that he always seemed disappointed by the way that I cooked and looked, walked and talked, slept and fucked, dressed and acted, but I thought that was just his style of loving.  Like the deep and steady love of a old grandma, bitter after Grandpa drank himself to death himself to death and didn’t leave her any money -- and now here I am, the ninth of eleven uniformly disappointing grandchildren, wanting the crusts cut off my grilled cheese.  I thought that his was that same deep and disappointed school of love, the bitter school.  He told me several times that he did all he could to spare my feelings.  I’m glad he told me that.  I would not have guessed.

Whoops.  Slouched against the wall my heavy sweaty arm knocked down this laminated sign:  
Do not replace books.  Put them on a table.  
A book misplaced is a book lost.
The sign won’t stay up now.  I tried.  It’s going to need more tape.  It’s not good for books to be misplaced.  As far as we know.  It’s certainly not good for the people looking for them. For people however, it is good to be misplaced.  At least for awhile.  I mean, If you are over 14 and willing to learn something.  I suspect it is not good for a person to be misplaced for too long.  Eventually you end up lost. 

Do responsible citizens making sacrifices in aspiration of a well-upholstered future realize that there are now countless places like this one, where misfits fallen out with the world have given up on anything earmarked as sensible?  

Why have we come?  In the beginning, here in the holy land, there was the hope that reality might prove more amenable, more flexible, that it might make room for us, or even provide the means for success (surprise!) by means of little-used and mysterious channels.  Might we not qualify for Divine Providence, simply for renting rooms here?  Total delusion, it turns out, but rent is cheap and there are peacocks and swamis, chai and cows in the street, rhesus monkeys stealing small children’s snacks and even langurs, down from the hills to ransack the tamarind.  And -- when all of that gets to be too much -- here is the library.

I have always been too abjectly grateful toward men who go to bed with me.  It’s highly off-putting.  With this man I’ve been to bed far more than any other.  Therefore he is approximately God.  Is it any surprise he should decide he is too good for me?  (His special name for me is Dog.)  I am strenuously grateful.  I have always been this way, even when I was 23 and somewhat adorable, in a lop-sided way.  I try to be humble.  I think it’s nice to be humble.  Other people help by agreeing that I am not worth much.

Somehow I thought it might helpful to watch the video of “I’m Almost Over You.”  Dumb, I know.  And who do I see but the man whom I love, the man who doesn’t love me, who oddly enough looks very much like Sheena Easton sitting there at the piano.  Hello?  Is this a coincidence meaningful?  Another question: why is Mrs. Easton hoisting an arcade game machine over a railing and shoving it off of the balcony?  Is that something that helps?

It occurs to me that I’m going to need is a new reason to not do drugs.   Like survival, but more compelling.  He was adamant that I not do drugs.  He thought that drugs were bad and especially bad for me.  It’s true that I don’t necessarily have the number one most orderly mind.  I also might be just a tiny bit sensitive.  Obsessive, even.  He didn’t want me to drink too much either.  It’s easy to drink too much.  Since drinking almost always seems like something that would help.  He expected me to go to the gym, collect accomplishments, turn a profit.  I guess he was trying to turn me into something he thought he would like.

Please understand: keeping myself going was just a little project I had, like a houseplant you bring back to life so you can give it away.  It was never a crusade.  You understand, it’s nicer to putter on Sundays if you have a small project.  That’s how I felt about survival.  In this earnest holy town I maybe got a little gung-ho: pure veg, gym, meditation, sit-ups, no liquor, no drugs.  But it was still just a very small project and it sort of made sense -- or anyway it did when I had a very beautiful lover, eight years my junior.

Every 20 minutes or so I get up and walk very slowly through the library.  It is excellent to wander in this way, from one subject to the next, from the scriptures in Tamil or Kannada to detective and suspense, from cooking to Theosophy or Pure Land.  As far as I know this is the only place in the entire town where it is possible to wander empty-headed with no chance of being hit by a motorbike, taxi, bullock cart or truck.  Although the entire town is holy, the library is the only place you can actually relax.

Almost every book in the library out of print, brown and decayed, with a frontispiece turned to lace by moths.  This library, like all interesting libraries, consists almost exclusively of failed books.  Books that never flourished or else have long since fallen by the wayside.  I could with almost perfect accuracy wander the stacks muttering, Has-been!  Failure!  Remnant!  Failure!  Trouble for nothing!  Loser!  Nobody even remembers you!  I do not do so only because I am a backwards and contrary person.  These books occupy an advanced stage of neglect just shy of oblivion.  How could I fail to be fond of them?  I am a partisan of that with stumbles, then falls.  This does not hold true for certain gurus, or their collected works, which may without regret be used to line bird cages.  

Some time ago I fell out of the world.  The shiny, accomplishing world.  I was not found to be well-suited.  I did however intend to return.  To renew my membership.  Several times I visited.  Such strange shapes!  I meant to return, sooner or later.  I believed that I could.  All I needed was a good reason.

I’m not entirely alone in this part of the library.  There’s this lady: pixie-ish, hippie pants and armpits, fifty-something, German maybe, sitting on the marble floor in the middle of the aisle, directly below the fan.  She’s always here.  She reads Osho or Calvin & Hobbes.  Or stares into space.  I’ve talked to her a few times.  The first time was when she walked up to me outside the meditation hall and told me my shoes would be stolen.  People are like that, she said.  She said her half-brother stole the inheritance she was going to get from her father who suffered from dementia but she talked to the photos of her gurus and they told her that it didn’t matter because soon the world’s biggest banks would collapse and nobody anywhere would have any money.  She would have told me more about the forthcoming apocalypse but I put my hand over my intestines like disaster was imminent.

I’m probably going to end up like her.  Some non-negotiable hurt will drive me right out of my mind.  Actually, this is probably it right here.  Wheeeee!  It’s remarkable how few human connections I have.  “You’re far away,” people tell me; they tell me so wherever I am.  Within the last several years almost everyone I used to know has become important.  Meanwhile it appears I am becoming smaller and less visible, which is an odd sensation and by no means entirely disagreeable.  

I loved him.  I loved him and he did not even notice.  He had some other idea of how it was supposed to be.  Like his crazy sister in Italy.  His sister with her perfect kitchen.  Her kitchen in which nothing may ever be cooked.  Because then it wouldn’t be perfect, would it?  

He doesn’t love me.  Not anymore.  So now I won’t be able to boast that I have a very beautiful Italian lover.  A sex genius.  Stop.  Stop, please stop.  

Walk.  The library, subject to its own mysterious dictates, includes even the section S: Miscellaneous.  Here are some titles from that section: The Oaken Heart, As Bill Sees It, Little Known Facts About Well Known People, Making the Most of Yourself, Self-Reliance,  Mathematics in Fun and Earnest,  Jealousy, How to Sleep Better, Other Men’s Flowers, Ask Marilyn, Choosing Civility,  Happiness versus Mental Fetters, Retirement: Plan Now for Your Best Years, Scoundrels & Scalawags, Why Men Can Only Do One Thing at a Time, Personal Accomplishment, The Handbook of Reason.

I believe there is such a thing as liberation by means of distraction, or salvation at random.  This is nothing official or scriptural.  This is my own thing.  The chance to be rescued, in the heat of the endless afternoon, from the poisons of memory, from pains too great to be borne, from one’s own bitter mind enamored of its own fury and bile.  To be saved, at random, by whatever is here, is real and alive.  However shabby and dog-eared it is, even if it crumbling, unfashionable and just this side of oblivion.  This is no big deal salvation.  Still, it has been found to work now and then.  The library is open every day, but only for a few hours.  You must make good use of your time.

Not just Sheena Easton, not only the Beatles.  Dionne Warwick has also shown up several times.  With her sparkly dress, her spacious nostrils, and her hair just so.  Much as I adore her, I had to turn her away at the door.  “No, sister.  I can’t.  One verse of ‘I Know I’ll Never Love This Way Again’ and I am taking the bus to Pondy and staying drunk for a week.” 

“He’s gonna be sorry!” announces this demon here, as it holds a guitar, hums, “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.”  Epic speeches, isn’t that the rumble I feel now in my brain?  Like an epic hatching of barrister cockroaches, all of them explaining at once why he is wrong, wrong, wrong.  I could say, accurately, that he doesn’t approve of anything or anyone else.  I share my defective status with the entire universe: his doomed family, his luckless friends, his worthless job, his subnormal co-workers.  A totally backwards municipality.  A nation where it rains all the time.  The fact is I loved him, love him.  Adored him, adore him.  And it’s best to just to leave it at that.  

Disappointment is not a mistake.  What did the Buddha say?  (I’m an incredibly spiritual person.  It’s coming back to me now.)  He said, unsatisfactoriness pervades existence.  At that point in his life the Buddha was not even dating.  Still, he saw.  Nothing does what we expect it to do.  Nothing takes the edge off, not the way we think it will.  It’s not me, I want to tell the man I love.  Disappointment -- is just the way that it works. My lover disappointed me, too.  Of course.  (Fuck.  I wanted someone who thought I was marvelous.)  From the man that I love, disappointments and wonders were all the time gushing forth.  I could not ask for more.

Look at the Swiss pixie lady now, cross-legged with her prayer beads in the history section.  Are those mantras she is muttering?  Or does she think someone is there?  Does she imagine the big banks collapsing, her evil half-brother penniless in the street?  Does it cheer her up?  Does it make her feel better about all she has lost?  How easy it is to become unmoored.  How effortless to end up the ghost of one bad idea, defined by one old and irreparable hurt.  

What I love the most, what I really love, is this fan.  Both the breeze and the sound.  I like God best when God is described as an ever-present hum.  Above, beneath, within everything.  That’s when God seems most commendable.  The very best sound.  Something like a ceiling fan.

A little bell.  A small tinkling bell.  A young woman in a blue sari edged in gold is walking through the library and ringing a bell.  It is time for all visitors to leave the library.  Now I will go and say a prayer at the shrine of the saint.  Then I will go back to my small room, with its peach-colored walls and its enormous fan.  I must check the computer.  I am expecting a letter.

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras, Summer Rain
translated by Barbara Bray
Scribner, 1992

I’ve read half a dozen of Duras’ short novels, but when I found a tattered, moth-eaten copy of Summer Rain languishing on the shelf at the library, I’d never heard of it.  To my surprise, I enjoyed it as much or more than any of her more famous works.  As soon as I finished, I turned to the first page and reread.  For fans of Duras, this is definitely a book worth searching out.  It needs to be returned to print.

Reading reviews from its English publication 20 years ago, the book was criticized for “paper-thin characters and surreal dialogue”.  The critics, it seems, the critics wanted another book like The Lover, a book that is tremendously elegant but also instantly comprehensible, like an art movie guaranteed not to confuse your date.  Summer Rain is far more strange and, to me, more interesting.  It’s the love story of a boy “between 12 and 20” and his sister, amid a pack of feral children, in a colorless suburb.  Nobody finds a place in the world; nobody minds.  I imagine fans of Clarice Lispector or Marie Redonnet devouring it, as well as neo-surrealists, collagists and poets.    

And -- I loved the “surreal” dialogue of which the critic complains!  Sure, sometimes it seemed like profundity and other times like pseudo-profundity but -- when I reread the book my opinion of what was deep and what was shallow had changed.  An excellent discovery, I thought, and evidence of success.  The dialogue is also often hilarious, if you revel in highly peculiar turns of mind.

Maybe twenty years ago people read Summer Rain and were dumbfounded but -- I reckon many readers have caught up with Duras since then.  The beguiling strangeness of this book will win it at least as many friends as detractors.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
translated by the author
published in French, 1951
published in English, 1958
published by John Calder, 1958, and by Penguin in 1962

It is always a relief to read a book like this one and be reminded that life seems this way to someone else, and not just to me.  Otherwise I start to think that other people feel, I dunno, like people in beer commercials, pretty much chipper all the time.  This is a bleak and hilarious book.  I was on board the moment the narrator announced, in the first section, “For starters, I forgive nobody.”

Of Beckett’s three short novels, Molloy has the reputation of being the most important.  My personal belief is that that’s because most people buy the 3 novels in an omnibus edition and only get as far as the first one.  To me, Malone Dies is every bit as interesting and readable -- and even more funny.  That or my sense of humor is becoming more bleak as I age.  Which is certainly possible.

It is a wicked book, such a true one and funny in the blackest way.  It is the sort of book that would be perfect to read if you were dying in hospice from cancer and your life had not gone particularly well, to read aloud to your roommate, also dying, also not such a great life, and together you would laugh helplessly until someone had to push the ‘nurse call’ button.  But seriously, don’t wait that long to read Malone Dies.  It’s a great book.  And you don’t have to wait until your life is worse to enjoy this book.  Your life is already bad enough.

Addendum: Advice on reading Malone Dies.

I understand that many people coming to this book will be academics, for whom it will be only one infinitesimal step in their accreditation and career path.  But for the sake of other people who are, like me, reading in hopes of pleasure and truth, and who don’t have academic training in literary theory and whatnot, I’ve found a way of reading this and other apparently “dense” texts that really helps me.

With my notebook and too much caffeine, I sit and read ten pages.  I read with attention, but without trying too hard.  After the first ten pages I say, “Yeah, whatever!” and go back to the beginning and reread.  I read approximately 20 pages.  After that, I take a break.  A little later, or perhaps the next day, I read another 20 pages -- starting not where I left off but 10 pages back.

Thus, by the time I’ve read a book, I’ve actually read it twice.  But this doesn’t feel laborious.  In fact it’s much easier.  Rereading gives me a chance to read with something like ease, with appreciation, and with questions in my head besides, “What the hell is happening now?”  This gives me confidence and when I finish a book I’m more likely to feel that I actually READ it and didn’t just, you know, look at all the words.  I apologize if this is obvious and dull-headed.  I hazard it here just in case it might prove useful.

Small Stories from My Enormously Spiritual Life

3rd series 

This exercise-book is my life, this big child’s exercise book, it has taken me a long time to resign myself to that.  And yet I shall not throw it away.  For I want to put down in it, for the last time, those that I have called to my help, but ill, so that they did not understand, so that they may cease with me.  Now rest.

-- Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies (p. 127)

Too Near the Street

My favorite dog is gone.  White, brown, black, and smart, she was the #1 dog at Only Coffee.  Every morning she met me a block away and escorted me to the coffee man, whom I often greeted with praise, “Best coffee!  Best dog!”  In this town of begging dogs, the #1 dog refused to acknowledge biscuits and sought only tenderness, most especially for her neck to be scratched, which she requested with the gentlest nudge, careful never to bump the hand that held the steel cup brimming with hot coffee.  Every day without fail she was here -- but now she has been gone three days.  Tomorrow I will have to ask.    

The #3 dog, whom the other dogs usually do not allow near, was bouncing off me this morning, clumsily rejoicing in attention.  The #2 dog, usually so cordial, appears nearly catatonic and barely lifts her head from where she lies in the corner.  I think the #1 dog is almost certainly gone.  Tomorrow I will have to ask the coffee man, “Best dog gone?”  No emotion, please.  So close to a street like this one, it would be self-indulgent to express surprise or upset when an animal is crushed beneath a tire.  It happens.  Yesterday, when I locked my door and realized I’d left the fan running, my first thought was, “If I get killed crossing the street the fan might stay on for days.” 

The last thing you must do before you exit the ashram gates is eradicate any hazy wisp of dreamy peace that may linger in your dazzled mind because now you must contend with the street and people really do die this way, mashed right in front of the ashram gates, yes recently, yes foreigners, yes Ms. Curie completely dead.

Along with the towering roaring lorries, the buses with blaring horns, there are of course the beeping cars, the speeding vans, the puttering erratic rickshaws -- all in a hurry, all swerving -- but the greater difficulty is to dodge the motorbikes and bicycles coming in every direction, plenty without lights and all without helmets.  One favorite strategy is to travel on the very edge of the road, against traffic, so that every road, however narrow, is actually a 4 lane highway.  Reliably, too, there are the pricks who, because this is a difficult stretch of road, like to speed up, lay on the horn, and blast through terrifying everyone out of the way.  Classic Indian traffic in other words, but keep in mind that traffic’s much heavier nowadays and most people are talking on their flip-phone while they drive and texting on their smart phone with their other hand.  The actual driving is done with one’s elbows, and only God is watching.

Thus it would be ideal to cross the street with one’s full attention, intent on the task at hand, but unfortunately this is not possible because the rickshaw men, seeing you poised on the brink, assume you want a lift and putter along blocking your line of vision, which is anyway already blocked by the buses swapping passengers and a vanload of pilgrims who thought it was a good idea to stop right here and purchase melon.  The beggars need money -- a hand, palm up, poked right in your chest -- and the holy men figure you could buy them at least a coffee.  The dogs come by too and, although most of the cows that amble alongside the road are good-natured, others will abruptly swing their horns or even kick and you can’t really blame them can you, along a street like this one?  Overall, it appears to be a conspiracy to distract you just long enough to reduce you to mash.  Meanwhile there is a shrine every five feet, with worshipers clustered like flies, because the invisible world is evidently as crowded as this one, and because urgent work is available for as many gods as will hazard a visit to this world reeking of sandalwood, cowshit, jasmine and monoxide.   

Spiritual Terms Defined: Circumambulation

My husband, from whom I am estranged, maintains that circumambulation is my favorite word.  Indeed, on this matter there is no reason to doubt him.  Few things please me more, or as reliably, as walking devotionally clockwise.  For me, the best circumambulatory path is the one that circles the hill around the home and temple of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  A dozen years ago, in celebration of one of His Holiness’s birthdays, the hill was planted with hundreds of trees and is now a young forest, full of light and green, where grazing cows and devotees amble along a path lined with mounds of carved prayer stones.  The custom is to circumambulate the hill -- a walk of perhaps 20 minutes -- before entering the temple, but I love the path so much I often circle, arrive at the temple gate and decide, “Not yet.  Around again.”

In the holy town where I live now, I circumambulate the shrine of the saint and the saint’s mother so endlessly I fear that I resemble one of those tremendously serious foreign devotees who are quite literally loopy.  To tell the truth, I just love to circumambulate.  And I will circumambulate anything.  Buddhist, Jain, or Hindu shrines, even churches.  Tapas bars, intimidating bakeries where only French is spoken, luxury shopping malls, gay saunas in foreign cities.

When I was in first grade, I spent every recess following the yellow painted lines on the edge of the asphalt portion of the playground at Matthew Thornton Elementary.  I remember I found it absorbingly interesting that the yellow line went everywhere, but ended up in the same place.

Eventually a letter was sent home to my mother.  I remember her reading it solemnly, then asking, “Is it hard for you to make friends?”  Both of us were figuring out that I was a somewhat peculiar child and we were both surprised.  I can see now that I was just getting my bearings, studying the perimeter of a strange and exotic place before entering.  It didn’t mean that I didn’t like school, that I didn’t want friends.  It is the pattern of my devotion. 

After the Writer

If I could call back from the beyond every page I’ve ever written, there would be hundreds of pages I wrote before I ever wanted to be a writer.  Then there would be thousands and thousands of pages I wrote when I wanted to be a writer, when my teacher said that I could be and I believed her.  Then would come this page, which seems to me the first page of afterwards, when that wish had become too painful and too cumbersome to sustain, and yet I continued to write without stopping.  This both is and is not an admission of defeat.  I had to give up the dream of ever becoming a writer.  It got in the way of writing.

Spiritual Terms Defined: Awakening

Visitors to India, having already created the idea of enlightenment, also created a junior grade known as awakening. Awakening means you’ve had a very big and special spiritual experience, and you belong to a very special, elevated strata of humanity, but you don’t quite have all your shit together yet.  As one of the awakened explained to me, “I already had the big one.  The cord’s been cut.  Now I’m just consolidating the experience.”

The mantra of the awakened is: I’m not a seeker, I’m a finder!  In fact, all that appears to have happened to most of these people is that a very special glaze has been added to their personality: a smugness, like plexiglass, encases them.  

It is effortless to make fun of the awakened, but it is easy, too, to see how they ache.  Someone told them once, many years ago, that they were tremendously special and, although it has not solved their problems, they cling to it, like a struggling, aging actress who won an Oscar in her youth.  Is it not glorious to win an Oscar?  Is it not gruelling, the way life goes on and on, so generous with its pains and insults?  When my envy passes, I can feel pity for the awakened.  It’s obvious that it gets lonely in there, beneath the clear glaze which, contrary to appearances, is every bit as hard as stone.