Our brother and friend Nathan S. Schank died April 1, 2023.
I am Randy, his actual brother, his older brother.
Nate was only recently retired from his job working in security at the airport, as some here today may know. He was a good and kind man. He loved cats, and called each cat he owned by the same name: Sam. [light laughter]
The day before he died, perhaps the very morning of his death, Nate went to a yard sale near his home and purchased there, for a pittance, an item that would lead him inexorably — Fate, my friends! — towards the untimely accident that preceded Nate’s passing.
My brother was a simple, cheery, somewhat top-heavy fellow, barrel-chested even as he entered his eighties. Mother often said she thought his feet were too small for his body, back when we were kids. His mustache was his main head hair, though like many older gentlemen he had unkempt rows of coily hair above his eyes — some call them eyebrows. [polite laughter from the mourners].
But Nathan, he had heard about this “pickleball” sports craze (I talked to him the week before) and I guess he decided that morning — a spotlessly blue sky day, do y’all remember? — with clovers red and white blooming up and down the interstate — he must have decided, after his usual coffee and biscuits, he figured he’d go to the local park and try to get in on a game, since he had a racket. He told me the word was that players were generally helpful and acted gracefully towards beginners. Well.
The story the family heard is that while Nate was playing his first game ever someone hit a curving shot with one of the balls used in this quaint sport. As he lunged at the ball, which skipped sharply away from him, he fell to the court and struck his head in a particularly grievous fashion. Though quickly called, paramedics were unable to resuscitate Nate enroute to Our Lady of the Dinks Hospital ….
Let’s all bow our heads and say a silent benediction — if you will —
Boomer McWillie had never been much of an athlete.
For many decades, he had treated his body like you truly should not treat even a bad dog’s body, abusing it with excessive soft drugs and rich food, pummeling it into bad posture, rarely exercising at all. By his mid-sixties — predictably enough — he began to develop the usual health problems.
One sudden day, walking (without a shirt) to get his mail, he heard a kid two houses down the block (there were a couple of them wandering around an above-ground pool): “Hah! There goes a man!” He went back inside and thought Hey! They meant me! They were being derisive, those kids! It was not a good feeling. One night he saw a girl wearing a t-shirt that read “I Dink Therefore I Am” and when he asked what it meant, and she told him, he became a convert to the church of Pickleball.
“Ah, fuck this grief counselling shit.”
McWillie couldn’t help but overhear the guy talking on his old-fashioned flip phone. He’d been attending the Garalusa Grief Group (led by Larry, local poetry professor) for several months, really for no reason aside from the joy it gave him to hear womens’ voices. He rarely spoke and was rarely given a reason to do so. He sat at the edge of the chair-crescent in a state of benevolent receptivity, quiet but not scarily so, secretly slightly high from the reefer he almost continuously consumed.
“Whatta ya say, man?” he asked the guy on the phone.
Putting his hand over the phone, he looked at McWillie, widened his eyes, and said, “Fuck this grief counselling shit. Let’s go get a beer.”
There was a bar several streets down from here. “Alright, let’s go.” Nobody would miss him. He’d apologize next time he attended.
He introduced himself as Sammy. “Mine is court-mandated, you know, so I have to attend at least x number of meetings. I had the choice of grief or trauma, I chose grief.”
“Uh, or — what?”
“Lose my clown license.”
McWillie frowned. “Oh. You’re a professional clown, then?”
“You’re gullible, aren’t you? I like that in a person. What do you do for fun, dude?” He eyed McWillie sympathetically.
“Aw, naw. Me too.”
“How long? I been at it a few months.”
“About the same here.”
“You want head to Gray Rock and play a few games?”
“Singles? These legs ain’t built for single matches.”
“Hah! There’ll be somebody there. But let’s have that beer first.”
“Well tell me what happened to your wife?”
“I keep saying I lost my wife because I really think Xenia will turn up again someday, though she — “
“What? So she didn’t die? I thought you — “
“No, like I said, I lost her. She had the sundowner syndrome or whatever it’s called. Dementia was there but we joked about it, mostly. I have a bit of it myself.”
“I hadn’t, uh — go on.”
“I guess it will be two years this-coming December, she just wandered off and was not immediately found, so — so we don’t exactly know what to think about her. People were coming to the house to celebrate Thanksgiving — boy were they shocked. I just can’t see her or feel her as deceased, though the cops tell me that after this long, well, there’s not much hope aside from faint glimmers.” He looked at McWillie. “So what about you?”
He told his new friend the story of how his next-to-last wife had gotten tired of him, amicably divorced him, and was now living more or less happily in Seattle with her children.
“Not my kids,” he said, “though I was their dad for awhile. None of us talk much or visit, ever. I’m kind of stuck in this solitude that I had better like since it don’t seem like I’m about to escape it any time soon, right?”
“Uh, right, yeah I guess. Want to go try to find a game or two?”
Silence walking back to the Grief & Trauma Center, shoes crunching broken tree-limbs (storms late last night) on the ancient sidewalks.
“Sometimes I think I see Xenia,” Sammy blurted out.
“Yeah. I don’t go up to the people or anything, though, you know.”
“Right. I wouldn’t either. It must be tough, this not-knowing about your wife….”
“Getting used to it to some degree. Losing one’s self in mindless pleasures helps, too, right? Am I right, Boomer? Is that really your name?”
“You know I went and camped out pretty much in the woods behind our house after Xenia got lost. I had the skills and the gear, nothing else to do, and there was the chance that I might find her. Very pretty, mild days. I didn’t hunt. I stopped hunting years ago. I forgot about football.”
“Yeah, shit. Sorry to whine so much.”
“Nah, man, it’s okay, it ain’t — “
Sammy stopped and reached into his wallet, pulled out an ancient tiny photograph of a dark-haired woman looking toward the photographer’s left shoulder. “There she is.”
McWillie grinned at his friend, knowing he was being put on. “That can’t be her.”
“Because that’s the woman on the cover of a book I once read, and it can’t possibly be your ex-wife.”
Exactly. Running out a clock which does not exist. That really irritates me, the one thing that irritates me about non-existence. No clocks. Experience runs together like, like —
Amor fati — even when your fate is to no longer be among the living, all those swarming up above — is the motto now, but I have to admit: I do wish to be back — if just momentarily — among the living. Do you?
It’s a rather personal question, but yes, often (I guess it’s often, who can tell here) I do wish to be back. I guess I’d have to make up for one badly-lived life doing better stuff in another life. I was really into clocks and timepieces when I was among the living.
Things I could undo, sentences I could unsay. Not speak. Pomposities of verbiage I never unfurled.
I was into time. Clocks. Collections of rare watches.
Well-l-l. [Jed Clampett-style] Clocks! Really only made for modern man around the 14th century CE.
What were you into, when you were alive?
I was a writer.
I tried to write down the stories of people who would never write down or even try to tell their own stories —
That’s — uh —
— but the backlog got enormous. And as people grew quieter and quieter, more reserved, it became difficult to know them, to figure out what their stories actually were. So then you invent as best you can.
Novels. Yes that’s what I did before this. No point in it now, is there?
I keep having a dream where I’m awakened, as a child, by a woman who looks a lot like Angelica Huston. She is not one of my particularly favorite actors. This figure is quite alluring and rather daunting by reputation, but she whispers at me, “Are your hands clean?” She has a slick silk scarf covering her head, and there is snow and ice behind her in the windows in the landscape. Her eyes narrow. I see that they are grey eyes. I know she is about to ask about the cleanliness of other parts, but I can’t swear it will happen.
And how do you answer in the dream?
I say, “As clean as they ever are” and Angelica Huston says, “That is not clean enough.”
And then what?
And then I go back to sleep and wake up and remember the dream.
DIALOGUE REGARDING DECONFINEMENT
I may not be taking this walk with you much longer.
Why is that? I greatly enjoy them, always have.
I’m tired, Em. Nothing, no one for me here. I’ve decided to leave the country as soon as my ship comes in.
No country for asshole writers, is that the scenario?
Heh heh heh, yeah well that nails it pretty succinctly.
I am funny sometimes. So when’s the ship come in and how much plunder and booty does she contain?
Enough to get me to some European country where the psychic weather is more suitable. This place is unravelling around us . . . I go today to finish up what I was starting right as the Event happened.
Passport? You don’t want me to know how much, do you? That’s okay…
Yeah. A post office trip. Then wait for the slow unconfinements. Though I may take a quick trip to northern California, it’s only $253 round trip if you book three months ahead of time, heh heh.
You won’t miss us?
How many of you are there?
You know what I mean, motherfucker!
I’ll miss home as soon as I am gone, natch. I’ll miss you.
Your cohabitator happy with these plans and arrangements?
Thrilled, Em, she is thrilled and looking forward to the time away from me.
Was that the key to your marriage — that you never spent any time together and so were always sort of meeting as strangers over and over again, what with the schedules and — the work and —?
Right. I thought everyone who knows us knew that.
You seem — blank. Dulled out.
I am. I fear I have become depressed. Energy’s slackening off — I got that two thousand meter stare — sleep is something I gobble, and as soon as my body reaches a supine position, my brain cashes consciousness in for dreamless, slobber-free hours and hours and hours of nothingness.
DIALOGUE ON THE HALF-LIFE OF LOVE
Why do relationships decay? Is it like radioactivity, with this graduated fizzling away of what originally drew two people together?
What can I say. I’m a painter, not a psychologist. The half-life of love. Are you thinking of a particular relationship?
Almost all the ones I’ve ever known. Something there is in life that degrades love as soon as love emerges.
That’s so depressing. Reminds me of how life breaks us down from the moment we’re born. What kind of love are you talking about? I don’t think a mother’s love ever goes away; only death, and hopefully not life, dissolves that sort of love.
I’m sorry. Maybe it’s just my experience, and no one else’s. I haven’t thought it out completely. I’m not a mother.
What is it that eats away at love in a relationship between two people, then. Is this the gnaw?
Yeah. Think of all the blissy photographs of themselves that people used to take and frame and then affix to hallway walls — Olen Mills studios, hey, didn’t you work there three decades ago? Or we may relentlessly post such shots today on social media, but it is all posturing, and we know, within the bored privacy of our homes, just how untethered to one another we are. There are very, very few happy couples in the world; most are folks who get used to each other as they run out the clock.
Could it be that you’re just a little jealous of those couples? I must say I’ve known couples that made good teams, you know, helping and supporting one another (perhaps rather lovelessly). No love, in the classic sense of love, but still —
I might be a bit jealous. I’ll admit that much. Source of my rancor, all that. Yeah.
I did work at a photography studio. It was horrible. Trying to trick the people into looking happier than they really were. I took millions of shots.
Did you save any?
Some. They look like Diane Arbus took them by accident and in color.
Can you find them and let me look at them?
Sure. Make some coffee, will you . . . ?
Yeah, one day you’re just enthralled with a person, and they seem enthralled with you, and you talk and talk — you go on trips, attend events — and you talk and talk as you travel, sharing secrets or anecdotes of vague truth. After all, you barely know each other. Still remaining, in that not-so-distant future just ahead of now, there are secret psychic moles and tats to uncover. It’s this iceberg that keeps the whole relationship going and you never quite get bored, even if you marry quickly and live in close proximity.
I’ve said many times: my partner loves me so much more when I am not present, off working on a distant project, you know, or solitary travel.
I think you had a song, didn’t you?
Yes [sings]: “I love you so much/when you’re far away/ won’t you please go, darlin’/I can’t miss you if you stay…”
Yeah, I love that one. Key of…?
Dunno yet, but speaking of singing, you didhear about the choir practice in Skagit County, Washington, right? Last March?
The super spreader event, yeah. Singing can be dangerous.
The dangers of mass singing.
DIALOGUE OF MYSTERY
May I ask you a question?
You may? Do I know you?
You may! We are friends online [names are exchanged] but I have never met you. Did you…?
Were you on a train to New Orleans late last January?
What, are you doing contact tracing?
[with vatic verve] You were going to see Twisted Nipple on the 2nd night, and I was hoping to make the show that night, but the train was late. What? The smile tells me you are not quite serious.
I am not. But yes, I went there. Does it show, these months later? I love those guys.
I saw you on a bench and said hello to you — it was on the Moon Walk, because I saw you on the train and remembered saying hello on the train.
And now you’re saying hello again.
Yeah, yeah, I mean —
I remember you. You said there was a song that you liked that was played the first night, so I shouldn’t expect to hear it that night. And off you wandered, upstream. I had hoped you might sit down and speak a minute or two. I was told you are a very good writer.
That’s what Mother says.
Do I know your mother? Wait …
Do you know my mother? I hope so, otherwise I’m going to be very confused.
Did you really wish I had stayed and talked?
You look friendly, harmless enough. I could probably take you in a fight to the death.
You have many fights to the death?
Not as many as I used to.
Ah. Well, I’ve enjoyed the witty repartée, uh —
Can’t even remember my name, man, come on.
I’m kidding. I remember your name. Nice to meet you!
DIALOGUE ON THE UNWOKE WORLD
So what is your determination today, my queen?
What do you mean? What’s that smell?
Wait . . . how does the world displease you?
Oh fuck you.
The world always displeases you upon waking.
And after I’ve heard the king’s latest tweets. Me waking, not the world waking.
No, the world never wakes.
You’re damned right.
And so that is your determination: the world is unawake, and you, the beautiful solipsist, are the only waking being in this unwoke world.
Oh fuck you again. Is there any coffee?
Today, my queen, we have freshly-brewed marsupial coffee, marsa upsak . . . .
DIALOGUE ON TEARS
I find myself crying much more than I did even when I was a kid. A dog’s face can make me weep. A woman’s eyes, or even her eyeglasses can make the tears flow. Odd things. Knowing something horrible is about to happen will make me weep preemptively, even.
Why do we cry, I wonder? We’re the only animal that does.
I dunno, really. Something bursts behind your eyes — a joy, a pain, a loss. A sudden knowledge of deep loss, and how loss makes us who we are, and that we can’t avoid it, ever.
That’s a grim way to look at it.
It is, I agree. You know, there’s hardly anything more shanky than seeing an old ugly man cry.
You’re right. Kids are supposed to cry. Big girls don’t cry. Old guys look weird when they cry.
I cried when I woke up to feed my dog and she was stiff and dead. Cried while I buried her.
I don’t cry much anymore. They say I have a somewhat flat affect. It helps with the not-crying.
I cried when — ah, you don’t want to hear this sentimental garbage. Who cares when anybody cries? I wept all the way to the hospital when my son was dying, could barely see to drive . . .
Just salt and water. I read that crying helps you relax, and that there are stress hormones IN the tears.
You don’t cry at all, do you?
You feel, but you don’t feel to the extent of tears.
That’s a good way to put it.
You’re very fortunate.
Do you think?
DIALOGUE TOUCHING ON MULTI-MASKING
God, what a beautiful day.
I dislike this month. Bad things hap in April.
Superstitious my butt-ocks. It happens about every other year, fate’s brutal middle finger just —
— bad stuff happens to me in this month. I do not pretend to know why. It’s always a remarkable month — trees taking off into leaf-creation, all those different colored buds beautifying Roadside Nature, and clovers go crazy along interstate exits and entrances, for some unknown reason.
It does, doesn’t it?
But wait, isn’t this the same Nature, capitalize it or not in your head, I don’t care, which has created the virus so annoying the 2020 globe right now?
Well . . . what?
Say, one aeon or whatever, Nature wakes up with a hangover. Fuck this, says she. Give me some chickens, some bats, some wet markets to mix ’em all together — Nature knows remarkably well just how much we humans love to hunt and chase, kill and devour down-chain animals. I think it’s a no-brainer for Her. Maybe She isn’t hungover.
That’s an incredibly cynical POV.
I have to admit, I’m not sure it’s a very scientific theory. Perhaps this virus is something intent on fucking up Nature, and its origins are — uh — how to say —
There’s human nature and then there’s nature nature, right?
Nah, I’m afraid they’re part of the same thing, some overweening —
— oh, I love that word!
— some overWEENing thing that is nature, us and the trees and the foxes and the bastard bits of RNA…a-a-and planets, too!
Oh my. A pantheist!
No, wrong word. No need for labels in any case. I hope this year is not a bad April.
It’s been a bad metal rat year.
It’s the Chinese Year of the Metal Rat since, what, late January?
Enough talk. My mask itches.
Year after year, we humans walk around wearing psychological masks, playing one role after another in our lives, sometimes many roles at once, multi-masking if you will — and now we walk about with literal ones.
So what bad things happened?
DIALOGUE CONCERNING BARTLEBY’S GUITAR
W: I’d prefer you not to do that.
W: Bring your guitar into the apartment.
M: Why not? It’s cold out here and she’ll —
W: What. Did you. Say. Did you call that guitar “she”?
M: I-I-I — it’s a linguistic hold-over from Romance languages —
W: No guitars in my apartment. One of my rules.
M: What are the other rules?
W: Never sleep with a man that owns no books.
M: [brief excess silence] Hmn. So I really have to leave this guitar out here to warp and suffer in this Centigrade.
W: Yes, you really do. I don’t allow the things in any habitation of mine. You might call it a religious objection.
M: To a musical instrument? Would you also ban the trumpet, the French horn?
W: Nobody ever wants to bring their trumpet or French horn inside.
M: It’s in a case. Are you afraid there’s something besides a Gibson in there, because if you are —
W: No, no, Shit-For-Brains, you don’t have to open the case. Just accept the rule. No guitars.
M: Fine. We’re going back to my place.
W: Enjoy the night . . . ! I’m avoiding a lot of ridiculous puns right now!!
DIALOGUE WITH THE PDA POLICE
You know, it’s tough going in to my job every day.
I’m sure it is.
They picked me from a bunch of people!
I’m sure they did.
I’m not a cop. I’m not a love cop.
I know that’s what they call you guys. Don’t let it bother you. You provide an essential service.
Do you want to know what I do?
I, uh —
— I go into work and re-dress in normal clothes and then, I walk, I saunter surreptitiously about the public places of the city looking for PDAs, which I video with my phone and turn into the database people downtown. They are given their tickets along with the photograph.
Fortunately, then, you never have to confront the hugging, kissing or otherwise offending set of persons, correct?
Correct. I’m a people person. I love people. I could never hand them a ticket for kissing.
But you have to fine people for being too close. For actually displaying love.
And what are those fines running us again?
One-sixty per couple for hugs, two hundred for kisses, one hundred for arm wraps and eight for hugs.
And these go up each time the couple is cited, correct?
Thank you for your time.
DIALOGUE ON PROXIMITY
R: How good it might feel to hold somebody close you know? Doesn’t everyone do it in the dead of night? When no one is watching, the CDC is far away and —
C: Now now don’t talk like that — it’s a different reality — !
R: To feel a different pulse beating near or close to your own, to smell something besides your own self-isolated odor . . .
C: Don’t. Don’t. Remember: “New Reality.”
R: I heard that phrase after 9-11…. How good it might feel merely to be in near proximity to the one you love, fearless, relaxed and unwary…!
C: I may have to call the policemen.
R: Then just don’t listen. Your hands on their shoulders, lightly. Their hands on your shoulders.
C: But I have to listen, and you should stop talking! This is bad, what you suggest.
R: Not necessarily a kiss, but —
C: This is illegal. Please stop.
DIALOGUE ON THE USE OF HRU (1)
Can I say something about affectation as it applies to pseudo-affection?
Oh please do.
Um, fine. I had a bad migraine last night but —
No, no, no, no. I am speaking of the texting bane that is h-r-u.
Why is it a bane? What the fuck is a bane, anyway?
You skeevy person, read a vocabulary book. If you want to show someone, to send a subliminal message that you care almost nothing about them, that you are being polite in the most affecting and unconscious way possible, send them the text “hru?”
I think you’re over-reacting just a tiny bit. It’s just shorthand.
You can’t go to the trouble to type out, “How’s your depression, George?” or “How is that case of food poisoning, Marie?” or “How are you doing since your town was quarantined?” You just type hru? and you’ve done your part to show your care for another human. Usually the hru?ed person understands the depth of apathy that comes from the use of hru and they respond…?
“Fine.” Now that you mention it, I think I know of a case where someone texted a dying person “hru?”
That’s right. Just another part of our world that looks so polite but in fact is not polite at all.
Was your father Diogenes?
DIALOGUE THAT DOES NOT INVOLVE REDEMPTION
. . . so I dropped that blue right at that very moment, staring up at the Billy Gibbons moon (in the constellation of Tartarus, methinks) — and then I went home, and I mixed up a vodka and orange juice, and I drank that sucker down in about two gulps, and then, and then —
The what moon? The ZZ Top moon? There’s no such constella– Wait, I thought this was gonna be a tale of um redemption?
Well it is, but first I have to tell you the same old I-love-her-but-she-don’t-love-me story.
Ahhh, I don’t see how you get to redemption from there. How much have you drunk tonight?
Why doesn’t she love him? Why does he love her anyway? These are the questions to be answered by the story I might or might not tell you.
Like 89% of every famous song and so many of the stories ever fucking written. Oh! You were thinking of Taurus, the Bull.
What? Taught us?
The constellation of the bull. Never mind. Go on.
I flash back now, alas, to that past time, what I felt as a young man once, back oh jesus in the days before HIV killed sex, the pre-fucking disco years, so young and skeevy. We southern hippie oafs in our bell-bottomed trousers drove VW vans or, carless like me, walked jactatingly along upcrumbled sidewalks a-litter with overgrown stubs of dry grass, dead cockroaches, empty cigarette packs tangled with candy-bar wrappers. My one and only — she was married but trying to get unmarried — needed money for that! I had none — she had grown bored with me (who wouldn’t?) and found another guy and they were pretty much the rage of town for a while. His was the androgynous name of Len/Lynn, and he worked in construction, resembling not at all loosely what one might imagine male Greek gods would look like in human form, their names on tags on their workshirts: ZEUS or MARS or whatever, so amiable and good-natured, tanned, and ready to fuck anyone who would fuck him….
It’s good that you don’t hold a grudge.[snicker]So he took your woman.
Well yeah, she had already grown deeply bored with me and, uh, hm: I went nuts for a while, not violent but just walking the streets keening and all a-weep in the middle of the night, reading Rimbaud and Celine, taking any dangerous drug I could get my hands on. Fortunately, I had no car and had to stumble wherever I felt I wanted to go. It limited my drinking. I got over it eventually. I ran into someone who pulled me out of my private little catabasis.
It’s an awful feeling isn’t it? If we could just be like Stephen Stills, and say, “If you can’t be/ with the one you love — “
” — love the one you’re with . . . ” I can’t, okay? I couldn’t back then, and I can’t now. The thought of them . . . it makes me want to say the word “wretch.” She, who said she was noli me tangere but he walks around with his hand raking her ass. He’s an oaf, did I tell you? A moronic oaf.
You poor guy.
I don’t want your pity.
No, you don’t want my pity, you want my love.
Fuck you, and your pity and your love.
Now, now…how much have you been drinking?
What else can you do when love crushes your gentle spirit like that?
Get over it? Go on to the next person. Forget her?
I can’t forget her. Nor can I find anyone else like her.
You do deserve my pity, dude.
DIALOGUE CONCERNING OUR UBIQUITOUS SOLITUDE
I: I’m just saying: I was already living this life when the rest of you were all mandated to live it. The only change in my reality is that there are shitloads of other people living it right now, lives of touchlessness, lovelessness and advanced distancing. Enjoy. But you poor extroverts can’t, can you? My heart, as crushed and mangled as it has been at the rough hands of your fellow (oh so lovable) extroverts, goes out to you all in this time of your craziness.
E: I certainly don’t envy you this, this what do you call it…
I: This is solitude. You wake from your very own dreams in a house by yourself: your own dreams, and no one to bounce ’em off of. You might have a dog, go scratch his ears and feed him, or a couple of cats might be curled up staring at you like you were some oblivious fool. There are no relationships. You are isolated, you and your things, with your self. It’s so simple.
E: This solitude of yours looks pretty grim from here. You don’t smile much.
I: What would a person smile about? I don’t smile much in any case.
E: Indeed you don’t; you never have, in all the years I’ve known you.
I: Old photos show a similarly unsmiling child. Life seemed extraordinarily numinous — until I learned about death. I then lost some of my childish joie de vivre.
E: So you started withdrawing a bit at that time. What, were you ten?
I: Yeah, about to turn ten.
E: Hey uh I notice . . . um, your flat affect is 13 on a scale of one to ten today, what’s up?
I: It’s nearing an anniversary, I always numb out as an anniversary nears.
E: Want to talk about it?
E: You know, the things you don’t want to talk or write about are almost always the very things you most need to talk or write about.
DIALOGUE (1) ON THE THEATER OF THE MIND
I’m a really good actor. I just realized it at this advanced age.
Are you? I think I am too.
Did you ever see a book called “Liars in Love” by a guy named Yates?
It’s by a guy who died on Alaca street over near the University of Alabama in a terrible state. His last novel was found in a freezer. Dead insect roaches, not the other type, found all round his work-table. He did nothing but work on his last novel.
I digress. Anyway it made me remember that actors, when they are working, must operate on this proposition: “I will believe your lies as long as you believe my lies.” Of course, some people live their lives that way. Trouble, alas, arises when one of the liars decides to stop believing the other person’s lies. The deceit is the basis of the relationship, see, and when it’s gone, the whole thing’s shot.
You could say, were you a scholar, that dramaturgy is itself a lie, but one of those lies that sprouts non-lies, i.e., truth.
Only, only if the author is working with some truth.
Making me think of Sam Shepard now.
John Dee and the Theater of the Mind.
No idea what I’m talking about, ‘ave you?
Not a whit. Pass me that back do you mind . . .
Careful . . .
DIALOGUE (1) ON LAVINIA’S IGUANA
“Often a new iguana is quite docile for the first few days after he is brought home. At this point, many owners think that taming their iguana will be no problem, and are somewhat startled in a few days when the iguana starts showing signs of aggression. This is normal: At first, the iguana may have been too nervous and intimidated by his new surroundings to assert himself. However, as the iguana becomes more comfortable, he is more likely to show his displeasure with handling….”
(from “How to Train Your Iguana”)
So why did you —
— pick the iguana. I know the question well. May I sigh audibly for your hidden USB voice recorder?
— [phony Brit accent] Go on, you. You’re off your face. Nothing’s hidden, it’s right there on the table.
What if I told you it had something to do with, say, Ava Gardner or Tenn Williams?
That means little to me. I suspect those names mean something I don’t know anything about.
I love him. He stays in his cage most of the time.
What is his name?
He doesn’t have a name.
Oh. Well, I don’t want to see your iguana, so, I’ll skip the holiday party at your house this year if he’s going to be there.
That’s silly. Come on. I’m sure he’d love you. He’s often the life of the party, depends on his mood. He can get pretty, um —
I don’t think so, Vinnie. I just don’t think so. Not into herbivorous lizards this year.
You could hold him. They can sense uptight people and you aren’t, so he’d love you to hold him, I’m sure. I talk to him like they say you’re supposed to. You should meet him.
What do you call him, if he doesn’t have a name?
Bub. I call him Bub. He likes certain things on Netflix.
DIALOGUE (2) ON LAVINIA’S IGUANA
Vinnie, listen it was right after that debacle with Margherite that I felt just like you do.
You were young Werther, Harry. You were only twenty-two. So save me the rundown on your sentimental histoires. I’ve made up my mind and my time is my own.
Well, okay then. Don’t say I never tried to talk you out of ending your own life.
I shan’t, don’t worry. I’m just tired of it. Tired of the seasonal holidays, tired of the generally pointless energy one spends just to sort of keep going nowhere, a capitalistic hamster cage to nowhere –
Except for the ones who get bigger and graduate to bigger hamster wheel cages. And get more food, better food, gourmet hamster food!
— you realize that by this time next year, the world’s worst dictator will have almost certainly attained another four more years to wreak havoc, incite dismay, embarrass the country internationally, and generally foul up our lives while his proselytes cheer him on.
This is serious, and I am treating a serious problem with the seriousness it deserves. You don’t know what it’s like. I am so monstrously weary of having one insipid and shallow relationship after another and not a spouse in sight. The young lionceaux don’t believe in foreplay and are addicted to opioids. The geezer-toys — ugh — let’s not even discuss them. I can’t seem to keep a steady job and so I have to gig, ugh, at various things, yeah, uck, just to pay the rent on this pitiful, squalid apartment with the iguana running around in there like it fucking owns the place –
What? You have an iguana? And who is or are the Leon Sew? You speak oddly, woman.
Yes, I have an iguana. He has a tended habitat and –
Well, while we’re going all non sequitur here, I have a doppleganger.
Yeah, I went to a club Saturday and they thought I was already there. One person pointed him out to me. Damned if he didn’t resemble me in the beard, hair and head-shape categories. What’s that fucker doing that I’m being blamed (or perhaps praised) for? [suddenly gloomy] I had this problem as a child.
Jeeze Harry you had a doppleganger as a kid?
Well, kinda. My “special education” cousin looked just like me and they always mistook us for one another.
Big shit, man. You call that trauma.
Well, yeah. Mild.
Mild is all you’ve ever had. Being born a woman — that’s a trauma in this world. Wake up, Harry. Let’s talk next month before I catch the flight, okay. You tire me today.
DIALOGUE ON NOT DRINKING
I decided to stop not-drinking today.
Is that right? Well, I’m glad I’m not your sponsor.
I don’t have a sponsor. I have never been a member — and I didn’t say I was going to drink.
I know, I know, you repetitive oaf, you never join any organizations. So why today?
Today? I hate to explain, since it’s so–uh–oh how to say? Muddled.
I realized that the person I love most does not, in any sense, similarly love me. I realized this: I’ll live an empty, bland life for the remainder of my days, never growing close to anyone outside of my immediate family — a long slow running out of the clock, like when one team is greatly superior to the other and it’s, oh, say, midway of the last quarter of play and the score is 49-3 — nothing exciting happens, not even for the team that is behind. They are too far behind. As am I. One dull play after another. The stands are nearly empty, just the bands and a few collegiate drunks.
How do you know she doesn’t love you?
When someone texts you “hru,” as I think I have told you before, that is a first good indicator. I’ve studied this. I have studied the decay of love. Monosyllables: the disintegration of love begins with “hmm” and “wow” and “right” and so on.
Wait, so she loved you at one time but she don’t love you no more? is that right or — ? Are you drunk?
Your answer is confusing. Which downtown?
You are drunk.
So you going on home to run out some more clock?
Is downtown burning?
Oh forget it. How can love or relationships matter much in a fucked-up time like this? Issues much larger than one’s personal despair are —
Yeah, I have a good partner in running out the clock. She’s a founding member of Apathetics Anonymous.
You don’t say.
I just did.
Well, after tonight, she may need some counseling.
I recently  attended a yoga workshop on the outer, northwestern ring of Atlanta: ten hours of yoga and talks spread out over a mid-winter weekend. We arrived on time and as my wife and I walked down the hall toward our room, I realized the teacher of this workshop was at the ice machine just behind us. “Welcome to the suburbs of Atlanta, Mr Schiffmann,” I said as he pulled up behind us. “I was at some of your workshops in Monteagle a few years back.” It was a nice way to start the weekend.
Friday. Erich is from California (he tells us all later), a former surfer. He shies away from terminology that sounds “hokey.” He is about six-six, maybe taller, a large man in perfect ease with himself so you don’t feel him as “big.” His face is compassionate and relaxed, ready to laugh but also deeply serious. He’s almost exactly the same age as me.
Many people are assiduously taking notes, but I resisted the urge to bring my moleskin notebook, wanting to let the information go directly into my head without having first translated it into my writing. Direct experience. There was an extended period of introduction and getting the sound right. He slides into his presentation with ease and humor eventually telling us the poses of the following weekend themselves would be not be advanced, but that the instructions for doing the poses would be advanced. He draws out words and breaks of quiet for emphasis. Eventually he commands, “All rise” which is the sign that asana work would now begin. We warmed up in his usual way and then did a subset of a vinyasa called “heavy-handed down dog.”
I had a perfect question to ask him, all about the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom Schiffmann had known and worked with as a young man. I had run across this philosopher as a teenager and was fascinated by his ruthless approach.
The question I formulated this way: “Why did I never read, in the books of his that I found, any statements by Krishnamurti advising us to at least try out techniques like yoga and meditation?” Though I didn’t get a chance to ask him at that point, later in the workshop Erich mentioned the Indian teacher specifically, even fielded a question about him, and I considered how it might now be the perfect time to ask this question, which I considered important to figuring out why I had developed along the lines I had – not along other lines. A perfect answer, of course, was neither expected nor exactly what I had in mind, but almost any good answer would do. “Which books [of K.’s] were you reading?” would probably fit the bill. “In some places he advised these practices, in other books, he did not” might also. Still, the session ended and my question remained unasked. Perhaps I’d see him again in the elevator and we could have a private talk about it.
Why did this question matter? you might ask. My answer is: If I had read in 1972 that this teacher, whom I greatly respected, thought it behooved us youngsters to delve into a study of physical yoga, well, I very well might have done it and have begun my practice at the somewhat more limber age of 20). As it was, I got bogged down in non-choice and stumbled along betangling myself in samsara for years, and years, and years. Where yoga, in Birmingham of the mid-seventies? The Sikh community certainly would have offered yoga at that time; perhaps I would have fallen in with them and taken classes at the then-brand-new Golden Temple. My physical yoga practice would have begun earlier.
Saturday. The rented ball-room holds fewer mats than the night before and is a-buzz, of course, with the excitement of people talking to one another. My attention is always drawn to those who might live at the edges of life, but this workshop contains mostly very normal-looking yogis and yoginis from who knows what varied areas of life and work. As usual at these events, I slipped into a by-now-familiar journalistic sort of duality and began to feel myself to be both participant and observer, an awkward stance at worst, useful for descriptions at best. I count mats, estimate the male/female ratio. I’m used to it. Each session begins and ends with meditation.
Gong. The first sit. Little instruction, just silence. Gong. “Take it easy on your body today,” advises Erich. “The practice will gradually get a bit more physically challenging as the weekend goes on, but remember to be kind to your body. You are the one who has to live in it the next day. Be kind to yourself. Pace yourself.”
Rather early the next Saturday morning, my bones a bit achy, it’s true, I walked across the four-lane street to Waffle House, where, amid strident waittresses and rambling customers I consumed some very bad coffee. The sun arose a deep shiny red between Atlantean skyscrapers but was immediately hidden by a screen. I paid and left the WH, walking up the hill to a Starbucks for decent coffee. On the trip back, I spied two hotel customers gingerly walking their cats.
Part of Erich’s message was to ask us to do some homework, that is, to sit in meditation twice a day, morning and evening, and also to practice seeing others as “brother” or “sister” first rather than seeing their perhaps most outstanding flaw/characteristic. This is a way of increasing empathy for others, and highly advisable as a daily practice, I thought. It is congruent with me noticing how I always seem to receive the faultiest of first impressions from people I meet; it is also congruent with my first, prime principle: ahimsa or harmlessness.
Later in the weekend he revisits the concept, adding that that even if we see others as “brother” or “sister” it does not mean – as with our own brother and/or sister – that we have necessarily to like them a whole lot. But we can make the effort to see them as related, as someone who we’d cut some slack. “Until proven otherwise, we cut them slack, as we would our blood brother or sister,” he smiles. “That’s all.”
Big mind is little mind, little mind is big mind. Scrub the thoughts, suspend thinking for a while, get smoo-o-oth and connect to big mind, ask big mind what now? Be willing to be led. Make up your mind not to make up your mind.
Why should it seem so difficult for me to conceive of the non-reality of death? This is one of his subjects, brought up just as casually as you might mention the weather.
There is, after all, that sense one almost always has in dreams of the absolute aliveness of someone who has died. We greet them, chat about this and that, never mentioning the large pachyderm in the dream-room; we hug them on exiting and when we wake feel as though an important revisitation has happened.
Our teacher, asked by someone else, brings this subject up, mentioning an experience of his dad about a week after his dad’s death, where he appeared at a red light where the son was stopped, just appeared and said, “Whelp, you were right. It goes on forever.” Or words to that effect. He’s pretty excited by this new feeling he has, that death is not real, and he’s sharing it with us all through our asanas and accompanying meditations. After pondering it, I hear the old traditional song hollowly echoing within my skull: Death don’t have no mercy in this land. I hear my wife quietly say, I have looked upon the face of death. I think about how much I miss those I have lost and how tempting it would be – could I consider it at least plausible? that death is miscomprehended?
Sunday. Erich brings in a banana this morning, and explains to us that a friend sent him a YouTube video of a monkey opening a banana – how the monkey pinched the little black stub at the bottom of the banana, easily revealing the fruit within. “All my life,” he said, “I’ve been opening bananas on the other end.” The room exploded with laughter.
At another point in the workshop, he mentioned the strict, unbending nature of his one-time teacher, Mr Iyengar. His teaching methodology was “very rajasic.” He told us how his days as an Iyengar teacher ended when he had eventually decided it “didn’t matter if you held your hand in certain exact position” – demonstrating – “during virabhadrasana two (warrior pose). In other conditions, in other places, other hand positions were eminently okay….” Questions were again fielded for a good hour. At one point we could hear the faintest country music coming through speakers high on the ceiling of the ballroom – soon after someone left the room (staring upwards), the music stopped.
There were two “lotus virgins” in the latter sessions, people who had gotten into lotus for the first time that weekend. Forward folds and twists with the legs in various positions as the leadup to the attempted padmasanas worked phenomenally well, making my lotus very comfortable, especially on one side. No knees were damaged in the construction of this pose. I could probably have sat thus for fifteen minutes if necessary. It occurs to me how much time I have spent sitting, the entire weekend, since Friday morning in my regular class before the workshop up until now, near the end of the workshop.
Meditation is the main thing, reiterates our teacher. I recall this emphasis from a few years ago in his workshops in Monteagle, Tennessee – one element of his teaching that apparently does not change much with time. He gives tips on how to practice meditation, five handy tips (scribble scribble) where and when – as in: try sitting in your hotel room where you wake up, push your pillows behind you, sit up, hit the snooze button, and sit for a few minutes. If you drift off, fine, the snooze will awake you. You can do it again and again. “It works well for me, while traveling.”
There is a certain clear, sharp feeling one gets after intense yoga practices close upon one another, which I feel to be an increase in buddhi – which might be translated as “intelligent, awakened light.” I can only say that I feel it shining undividedly out of my eyes. When the practice has been an intelligent and thorough one, you feel very much at home in your body and there is an absence of kinks which is delightful for those of us who still suffer (on other bodily occasions) from sleep-stiff necks and frozen mouse shoulders. Then one can be said to truly delight in the absence of tension; the spine is a proud collection of bones twisting upward into the lower realms of heaven – even if you are now in a car being driven westward, toward home, firmly attached to earth.
Okay, so my net worth at this point is – if the house sells for what I hope it will – but of course I will never sell this house here on the river – almost a third of a million bucks. It varies from day to day due to the price of stocks going up and down, but…
Yeah. It only happened a couple of years ago. A relative died and left me this; I had no idea he had so much money. I always figured I’d part of a $200,000 house, and would use that money to pay off all my debts, with a mere pittance leftover. Instead…
Instead you got a bunch and so you what, quit your job?
Well, no, it was more complicated than that, but yah, shortly after the will was probated I left my main vocation and have not re-entered the workforce since that time. Their loss.
Oh – yeah. So whattaya do now?
I’m busy writing.
Yeah. Finished a book about – uh – a year ago. Been busy ever since. Another book.
Oh. What’s it about?
Ah, hard to say really. I hope to use a Magritte print for the cover.
I’ll ask again: what do you write about?
This one is about nescience, which is another word for avidya, which is another word for not-knowing. A state of non-knowing. So I’m writing about what we don’t know, a set of several stories that are somewhat connected by this idea of epistemological gaps or blind spots.
So you’re not saying you don’t know what you’re writing about . . . but that you are writing about what you don’t know?
That’s knotty. Never mind.
Okay. I’ll put it on my list and look it up. A third of a million, eh? How long can you live on that, man?
Well, I try first to make it, on what cash reserves I have, to the March following the end of the world in December 2012. I’ll be 59 ½ then, and can tap my retirement savings without the penalty. Hopefully there’ll be enough left to keep me going (if the world does not end, heaven forfend) until social security kicks in. That’s the plan.
So you have done all the long division on this.
Oh yeah. And I am not a math person.
And you think it’ll work out, huh?
Yeah. But I can’t live high on the hogleg (as some say) unless I get a job. And there is the utter wild card of personal health thrown in there.
So: you never thought a person like me – obviously stupid about money, incapable by nature of making or saving sums of money – would or could wind up a low-hundred thousandaire –
That’s my sleek term that switches millionaire into another term. A thousandaire has thousands at his command, not millions.
Oh yes. The writer is always active. You and your words.
Do I detect a tone of derogation?
Hm. Well. Go on, I’m listening.
You didn’t answer my question.
No, yes, I do find it hard to imagine you as a person of wealth. Taste you have. Class of a sort you have – though it is involved with what you know, not the strata of society you come from. I – I have always thought of you as a person who knew well how to deal with poverty, with having nothing much materially speaking. You seem to thrive in such semi-squalid environments – remember? I doubt your ability to shift that and know how to decorate a living room with artwork.
[Pause of remembrance.]
You are wondering what I do with myself all day, every day, aren’t you?
You’ve said that you write.
So um what’s the point of all this writing? Do you intend to entertain, instruct, annoy…?
I don’t know. I write because I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m not sure I’m doing it for any grander reason. I suppose deep down I want to be remembered after I die.
Transcend mortality, eh? Obese chance of that.
Well I guess.
Isn’t it a big change, this movement to freedom after however many years of wage-slavehood?
It was one I was glad to make.
I’m sure. Changed your life’s daily course quite a lot, I imagine.
O yeah. It has. I am generally more relaxed. I know I shall no longer have to deal with oafs, goober-heads, gossips and racists. I shall have to learn how to handle investments, retirement income and other money, and I will learn how to lever down needs and desires until life becomes much simpler….
A tradeoff of sorts, then.
[Pause tape while each person checks their phone.]
Why are you looking at me like that?
Like that. With your – like that!
I have no idea what you are . . .
Forget it. I have trouble reading faces. I try to write every day, on like three or four things that I’ll never finish, and I feed the dogs, work the garden a bit if it’s not too hot, keep the fence cleaned off, windows cleaned. I stay busy. I’m training a hummingbird on the porch.
It scares the shit out of visitors. They think it’s a fairy, Tinkerbelle or something. And in the evening I like to sometimes take a drive.
Well I was about to tell you.
Well okay then, duh –
I’m not gonna tell you now. You’re listening with an unclean motive, I can tell.
“You got a lotta nerve,/ to say you are my friend –”
I know that one: “When I was down,/ you just stood there grinning.”