April 06, 2005

Where to Reincarnate Me

I’m sitting at the outdoor terrace of Central Market Café, one of the most pleasant of American agoras, with a mango tea and a blueberry spelt muffin, not minding the occasional crow who jabs at a crumb under the table. To guard against the fierce sunheat that will arrive in a month or two, umbrellas advertising Fiji water shade the tables. The umbrellas are painted sky blue with puffy clouds, but they pall by comparison with the newborn blue of the Texas spring sky, and their monochromatic shade is somehow less restful than that of the broad live oaks whose leaves and branches dapple the redwood platform. The store is selling perennials and herbs at curbside: plumbago and scabiosa, potted basil and peppers and tomatoes and eggplant. The foursome at the next table is speaking French animatedly, bemoaning the local provincialism no doubt. I’ve got my little notebook to record:

• an attractive blond with a white cane, wearing extra-dark wraparound glasses that block out all light, wearing a tense, game smile as she gingerly taps into table legs and the terrace railing and, helped by an aide standing behind her, maneuvers her way around. I think she’s either new at the blind game, or--what I’d bet on--she’s not blind at all: she’s a volunteer at the state school, being trained to understand her students.

• a nerdy male middleaged teacher--recessed chin, beak nose, unshaven--talking education with a nicelooking 40ish brunette--confirming that they both disapprove of the state standardized tests--admiring how much today’s kids can do computers--“Do you mind if I ask you your age? It’s only because I’m wondering which side of the cusp you’re on as far as learning computers in school”--then sharing his sensitive life experiences, telling her of his ex–mother–in–law’s brave battle with terminal illness--what a positive influence that woman was on his life--“I couldn’t possibly have a relationship with a subservient woman.” He’s pushing too hard, I want to tell him.

• a sipper of hill country chardonnay complaining to his tablemates that a Yahoo search didn’t list his website although a google search put it in the top ten for his type of product.

I’m reading Patrick O’Brian’s POST CAPTAIN, the second of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. The first, MASTER AND COMMANDER, was frankly not as exciting as the brilliant Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe movie--O’Brian can get bogged down in hyperprecise descriptions of exactly which of the brig’s two dozen sails were used under exactly what conditions of wind and current--but it was enough to get me to buy the whole series, 6,500 pages of it in five volumes. These are not only the ultimate grown-boys’ books, but also novels as skillfully crafted and beautifully written, as knowledgeable of their subject and observant of human nature, as anything I know of in the present age--and unlike any “literary” novel, they can keep you smiling continually as if you were Jerry Garcia playing “Dark Star.” I’ve only got 6,100 more pages of smiling to go.

In POST CAPTAIN, Jack and Stephen are ashore in England during a lull in the Napoleonic wars, fox-hunting and maiden-wooing, and O’Brian does it at least as well as Trollope ever did. In the space of a few pages, Jack says, “I do love being surrounded by girls--so very different from men,” and Stephen, in a different scene, says, “I am not in the least degree interested in women as such…. Only in persons,” and you know that O’Brian absolutely agrees with both.

If reincarnation exists, I want to be reincarnated in ancient Greece. (You didn’t know that you can be reincarnated in the past? Oh, yes, of course, since time is not a straight line but part of a complex spacetime manifold, possibly shaped like a donut--a torus. You can pick and choose from anything--and it’s funny how many souls choose to be perfectly ordinary people or animals, even suffering ones.) I’d like to find myself in the agora of Athens, catching sight of Socrates and Plato, maybe overhearing a snippet or two. If you’d like, you can meet me there--let’s say 458 BC, in the Theater of Dionysos, when Aeschylus is winning first prize for the ORESTEIA.

But now I’ve got a backup plan, too. I want to be reincarnated in the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Of course they’re fictional, but they’re made of information and so are we. They’re information in the form of words, and we’re information in the form of genetic code, and they and we alike are all information in some other, more abstruse form which have still have no understanding of, called existence. (Maybe we just seem more solid because there’s so much more information in even the poorest living organism than in even the greatest book.) So, yes, I’ll be a character there, maybe an eager midshipman or a grizzled ship’s carpenter--though best of all I’d like to be Maturin, the unassuming physician-naturalist-spy and awkward swain who always saves the fearless, open-hearted “Lucky Jack.”

And to tell you the truth, I’ve got a third plan, too. If I can’t make it to ancient Athens or the England of 1800, just put me at the Central Market Café in 2005. The healing rays pour down and the beverages burble from their bottles; in the playground kids laugh and squirrels skitter; and all three--Athens, England, America--are here inside me right now. I’d be one of these crows or these squirrels. And to be one of these laughing kids--how unutterably lucky!