1. The Fish, Despair
The giant fish in the open tank beside the tables at the infamous and eternal Malaysia Hotel – let’s call that fish Despair. Its long gray gleaming body, the vivid prehistoric fin that surfaces now and then as it circles through the murky water. Our fish, Despair. It is necessary to note and experience the fish.
It is also necessary to note the dark water and the glass. The potted fern, the sex tourists, the
Waikiki pancake, the faux
cave. It is necessary to be aware of all
of this, as well as the fish, Despair.
A black and white cat prowls the edges of the tank, it strides from stone to stone. In addition to the cat there is a delicate spider, lowering itself from the eaves.
This TV show is all about celery. All the pleasures and benefits of celery, and celeriac as well. Celery, we are told, adds a delicate flavor to soups. When you buy celeriac you must make sure it is intact with no visible cracks which spoils the taste and would be a shame.
The show ends with the warning that, if you are allergic to celery, your lips may swell or your throat become scratchy. If this is the case, you should discontinue eating celery immediately. Thankfully, such allergies are rare.
Imagine if this TV show inspired you to finally sit up, find your keys, and venture out to the supermarket for the purpose of buying celery. Imagine you made a soup with a delicate taste – only to discover that your throat had become scratchy.
You might very well feel that life was against you, denying you not only great loves and successes, but even small pleasures like celery.
You might very well give way to despair.
The way it is sometimes apparent that people buy sickly sweet caffeinated beverages simply because the sugar high will allow them to get through the next eight minutes without succumbing to despair.
Because of my ever so slightly dramatic nature, I assume disaster is imminent, when really it is entirely possible to get through four or more decades this way, one soda after another, and never appear any worse than mildly disappointed at the proceedings. As if nothing else were wrong besides having diabetes.
The grandfather lost his hand to a threshing machine. The father lost use of his in a motorcycle accident. By the time the son came along it was tradition.
Anyway, he wouldn’t need it, would hardly feel it, said the father and grandfather as they sharpened the knife. Because he was special, as they were special. Special rules applied to him.
My new friend explains that, contrary to what you may have heard, prescription drugs really do help. They are tremendously helpful. They are so effective, in fact, that it may or may not be not necessary to actually swallow them. For him it is enough just to look.
He likes to examine his barbiturate collection every day, and especially at night before bed. It is a first-rate collection, well-balanced and well-researched and he is confident that he could use it to kill himself, any time he deemed necessary or convenient.
Everyone thinks his new stability and good cheer are the result of a change in scenery, a new love, a decent shrink, a yoga regimen. When it is in fact the prescription drugs that are so remarkably effective.
He never goes anywhere without a pile of condoms, someone else’s credit card, and his barbiturate collection. He is cheerful, like any man who knows he has options.
At Phuket Zoo the drugged tiger lies on its side beneath a garlanded photo of the dull-eyed elderly king and a sign welcomes you to have your picture taken for just 200 baht.
Or, if you prefer, there is
the orangutan, her white flab showing through her thin orange fur like an old
woman who tints what little is left of her hair.
Monkeys, birds, seals and crocodiles pace the floor or lie in the corners of cages that seem entirely rickety and unsound. But I realize that it is not necessary for a cage to be impressive. It need only hold.
It is essential that we not anthropomorphize animals or intuit what they feel – because, if we did, their grief would be so overwhelming that anyone with a quarter-teaspoonful of empathy would keel over dead.
What is left waits in its concrete pit so that we can take a picture with our phone to ornament the Internet. Here I am, in Nature.
6. Red Ant
Large red ants all around me, tracing the edges of the chair, veranda, or fallen leaf. This one here is hurriedly circumambulating the round table where I sit. My psychiatrist in
Chicago explained that certain repetitive
acts are self-comforting. Perhaps the red ant is feeling agitated. Sure looks that way. Maybe the red ant is saying to itself, “I’ll
get to the end of this sooner or later.”
If anyone has the right, it’s her, in her wheelchair from which bottles hang that fail to dull the pain. But she does not despair. She does not even complain. She explains that now is when she is learning to live – when it is no longer a question of winning a prize or enduring a pleasure. When there is no consolation, compensation or purpose that will make it all officially work out. This is how she is learning to live, while dying.
It’s life, she says. Not a bank account. You don’t balance it.