April 30, 2009

How to Be Ubiquitous

The gym I go to is quite noticeably owned by Lance Armstrong. The guy is everywhere. Against one wall is one of his bicycles inside a glass case. Flanking it are blown-up news clippings, from his first childhood foot races to his cancer to his Tour de France victories, and four big signs covered with text narrating his career, their titles ranging from “In the Beginning” to “The Road Ahead.” In the men’s locker room, the first locker you see is covered not by the usual rattly metal door but by thick glass plate through which you can see a pair of Lance’s racing shoes and one of his spandex outfits. On the rear wall a huge picture of Lance in his familiar crewcut challenges you with an unflinching but not actively friendly stare, and a quote from him:

“I don’t have bad days. I have great days and good days.”

It goes on about how he’s on his ass (his word) riding his bike six hours a day: “What are you on?”

Everyone who goes to the gym is supposed to read that and be inspired to do much more than they dreamed they could, and put in their place by knowing they could never do as much as Lance.

As I write this, I’m listening to Pandora Radio on my computer, and what do you think just came up on the screen? An ad with Lance sitting in shorts and T-shirt (same crewcut, same direct quiet don’t-call-me-arrogant look), recommending that I buy an energy supplement.

I am not going to buy it.

However, I have bought a noncommercial part of his message. I don’t have bad days, I have great days and good days. I suppose it isn’t as true of me as of Lance, but I’m not going to spoil my day worrying about it.

It’s amazing that I’ve come to this. By various means, most of which I’ve discussed in this blog, I seem to have boosted my mood curve so that whereas its peaks used to be slightly above average and its troughs well below average, its peaks are now well above average and its troughs slightly below. A simple uplift, maybe a regrooving of some neural paths. I’m the same and not.

Today looks like a good day. (It’s just before noon.) I have no idea what will happen. Maybe it will be a bad day after all. I’m open to it.

Some days I recognize familiar symptoms: waking up with a sweaty sense of dread; feeling dependent on people I’m no longer in a position to be dependent on; playing movies of grievance and hostility in my head. I recognize them at the moment, and being recognized, they leave. I thank them for stopping by, and I thank them for leaving.

I think I’ll go to the gym. I usually tread the elliptical trainer, but when I want to read a book I pedal the exercise bike. Today I’m going to bring—you can’t guess, it’s too weird—the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. The new seventh edition just came out last month, with lots of changes to include electronic media, such as how to cite web pages in your bibliography. It’s for my freelance work, and I’m, yes, I’m excited to read it.

I feel wide and open. The whole visible realm is available to me. I’m here, and to be here is to be ubiquitous.

Labels: , , ,

April 29, 2009

More Cool Rabbis

I've been receiving rabbinical wisdom from all quarters lately. This is from my old friend Larry in New York:

"Song is one of the degrees of enlightenment; prayer occupies a lower rung on the same continuum. When you are on the rung of prayer and have not yet reached that of song, you need to exert yourself greatly to begin to sing. Then you will begin to see with spiritual vision and become enflamed with the passion for God."
-- Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno

And here's another that Annie Dillard quoted in For the Time Being:

"When I see a bundle of straw lying in the street, it seems to me a sign of the presence of God, that it lies there lengthwise, and not crosswise."

And here's a response I got from God:

"Crosswise, lengthwise, what's the difference? What do they want from me, these nudniks?"

Labels: , ,

April 27, 2009

My Bully

It was an age when stereotypes walked the earth. There were kids called Four Eyes, and rough kids and fatsos, there were boys who spoke with lisps and boys who wet their beds, there were dumb kids and walking encyclopedias. Anyone could be summarized in a phrase, and every neighborhood had the same population of simple phrases, with different faces attached. The fat kids seemed in our imagination –- and I have to call it imagination although we saw them every day –- not just large or overweight but balloonlike, globular, as if they belonged to a different species, and in the animated feature that was our street life they came complete with pendulous drooling lips and silly pompous voices.

I was a skinny malink. Whatever a malink was, I was informed in the most authoritative tones that I was it. My malinkhood, not to mention my protruding ribs and twiglike forearms, were proof that I could be made fun of with impunity. But everyone made fun of everyone else with impunity, and I was among the swiftest and most skillful in jeering at fat boys and running away, or calling out, “Thufferin’ Thuccotash,” when Stewie Silverman -– Thtewie Thilverman -- lisped.

My bully hadn’t achieved true circularity yet; he was large and pudgy on a realistic scale; but his older brother was a foremost blimp who, somehow in conjunction with that, had tremendous amounts of schoolwork that prevented him from going outside to play. My bully never spoke about his brother but they were inseparably joined in my mind. My bully’s name was William Goldschmitt, and you could tell he was on his way to alien-species roundness because he was never called Billy like a normal boy, always William.

The Goldschmitts lived in the apartment directly over ours, my family on the ground floor and his on the second: we were friends by propinquity. The strange thing was what good friends we were when he wasn’t beating me up. We walked down the street together for fifteen-cent slices of pizza, chatting enthusiastically about dinosaurs and astronauts, stamp collections and Jerry Lewis movies, despite the fact that when I was in company with my other friends, my normal friends, we shouted, “Pizza Boy!” at him because he ate three slices at a sitting. (He was eight years old, me six.) Often I ran upstairs to play board games with him. William always got the new games a few weeks before anyone else –-or maybe it was just a few days, those extra-inning days of street running and ball chasing, days as full as weeks -– because his grandfather owned a hobby shop, a little place stocked with model kits, pink rubber balls, lanyard material, chemistry sets, erector sets, terrariums, baby blocks, rhythm band instruments, and books in boys’ and girls’ mystery adventure series, as well as the games we lusted after. It was William who first possessed a copy of The Game of Life, by Milton Bradley; we must have played it a dozen times before it was available for purchase by the unconnected. To fuel the action we drank glasses of iced tea, dark moss-brown and zinging with artificial sweetener, from the Tupperware pitcher William’s mother kept in the fridge, a practice my mother sneered at as being pretentious and genteel.

The times I didn’t want to be near William were the times he came upon me in the lobby of the apartment building, where I couldn’t outrace him and no parents were around. I don’t remember what reasons he claimed for attacking me; I don’t think he even used a pretext, like my looking at him funny or anything. He just came in swinging and kept up till I was crying, which was never very long. I was going to use the word “merciless” in that last sentence but in fact it wasn’t merciless at all: he stopped as soon as I sobbed, “I give.” The rules were never spoken but they were followed. Another rule was that the little space in the corner of the vestibule, where the open front door made a triangle with the walls, was my safety zone: if I could dash into there, he wouldn’t come in after me, although if I ever felt like leaving that tiny triangle of floor space, he was waiting right there with his fists still clenched. Once or twice he broke the rule and pounded me within the safety zone, but some inner voice stopped him and he respected the rule from then on.

I couldn’t understand why someone would want to hurt someone else for no reason. For a reason, yes, that was part of the code; but I was just walking through the lobby doing nothing! In our friendly hours -– which could follow the unfriendly ones with no interval -– I asked him why he punched me. “Don’t you ever feel like fighting someone?” he asked -- a question to which I still don’t know my true answer. Then he directed me to the next board game, the next glass of iced tea.

I complained to my father: “William always beats me up.” Contrary to my hopes, my father did not beat up Williams’ father, an insurance man of dismal mien. “Hit harder,” my dad said, and looked back down at some printed matter.

I even asked William himself what I should do. “How come it’s so easy for you to beat me up?” I asked.

He explained his secret technique: don’t just punch once or twice, conduct a relentless rapid-fire barrage, punch after punch to the same spot on the belly, until the opponent –- me – is overwhelmed.

Next time we found ourselves in the vestibule together, I tried it, but I was so intent on keeping out of range that my fists couldn’t reach the target area and landed harmlessly on his arms. He stuck to his plan as always, and I gave up on schedule, believing I was incapable of mastering the technique.

As usually happens, at some point he stopped bullying me without ever saying so. Maybe it was when my family moved to the fourth floor, a larger apartment in a different precinct of the building. Ringing his doorbell now required travel with a purpose; it was no longer what I automatically did when I went out into the hall to look for a playmate. Then William advanced to junior high school -- not our district one, but a private school his mother genteelly drove him to –- and when we crossed paths he didn’t bother to say hello.

One time, William got into a fight with the son of a friend of his parents, and the boy broke Williams’ arm. William’s parents sued their friends, winning hospital costs plus emotional damages.

Years later, William’s older brother became a tax lawyer, and the neighborhood whispered that he’d lost a lot of weight and become a racquetball nut. I don’t know what William became, because by the time he was old enough to become anything I was out of there myself.

Now I’m coming to the ending, and it’s not going to be what I planned when I wrote the beginning. I’ve thought of an alternate ending, so I’m going to give you both, the theatrical version and the director’s cut. The theatrical version is that I think of William with insistent bitterness, and if I came across him lying in the gutter I’d piss on him and remind him why. In that version, William is my negative mascot, and while I love peace and have spent years meditating, practicing serenity, studying forgiveness, and I know that anytime I hurt someone it hurts me worse, I want to keep one symbolic enemy, a mental demon I won’t come across in real life, so I’ll stay grounded and not think I’m some kind of spiritual person.

The director’s cut? It’s just this: William became a good story and now we’re through. His story visited me after a lot of years and made me smile, and as it passes out of my mind, perhaps for as many more years as I have left, I see it off with a grateful wave. If I ran into him again I’d be happy to see him, and not need a reason. I wonder if he’s fatter now, or thinner, and the unknown answer pleases me.

He was always a story, and now he’s more so.

Labels: , ,

April 25, 2009

Peacock Blue

The empty envelope had my childhood address in peacock blue ink, and hers in the corner.

Empty, and with two corners slit. I’d found it in a box of old books when I was rearranging the garage. Maybe the letter was somewhere among all these boxes, with a dozen others she’d sent, but I had no idea where. Maybe I’d thrown them out in a seizure of anti-nostalgia, or they’d been lost in one of my dozen moves.

Was it a letter rhapsodizing about making love for the first time? Or pleading with me to go to the same college as her?

Peacock blue: the color of junior year of high school. Her handwriting: careful, regular, every letter standing straight. A schoolgirl’s handwriting, belonging to someone who thought that to be mature is to do things correctly.

Peacock blue. We wrote letters obsessively though we lived only half a mile apart. Outranking the late-night phone calls and intense afterschool talks, the letters were for deep, enduring questions that couldn’t be allowed to evaporate into air. They’d continued into the first year of college, traveling a thousand miles. Then they’d stopped.

The smallest souvenir can take you the furthest back.

We’d been landmarks for each other, like pencil marks on a wall to record your height. Impersonal. Not that it could have been anyone—no, we really liked each other. But we hadn’t even had selves yet to know. I didn’t know who’d written those letters, or answered them.

I tried to wonder what she was doing now, but it didn’t work. If I’d learned that she’d been married, divorced, had children—my God, by now she could have grandchildren—had this or that illness or occupation, they would be arbitrary facts, unattached to a solid form, like pushpins without a map to pin them on.

What I would have thrilled to see, what could have told me something, was, What is her handwriting like now?

Labels: , ,

April 21, 2009

How God Prays

"Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said that God studies Torah three hours a day. The Talmud notes that God prays, and puts on phylacteries*. What does God pray? 'May it be my will that my mercy overcome my anger.'"
-- Annie Dillard, For the Time Being

*leather thongs, wrapped around the forehead and left arm, to which are attached small leather boxes containing passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy, worn during weekday morning prayer

Labels: ,

April 20, 2009

What's the Time?

I have no idea what the current theories of time are, but here are questions whose answers I would like explained in such a simple, clear form that I wouldn’t have to exert any energy trying to understand them. That’s the same approach I take toward gardening: throw a lot of wildflower seeds around and do the minimum necessary.

• Is time continuous or discontinuous? If the latter, what exists between time positions? In either case, what pushes time -- what force moves time forward? Is there time-inertia, time-acceleration, time-entropy?
• The attributes of space are shaped by physical forces such as gravity and acceleration. What forces shape the attributes of time?
• What is the speed of time? Spatial phenomena have speeds: the speed of light, of the expansion of the universe, etc. Time flows at a speed: one second per second. Are there other time-speeds, actual or potential, to which our time-speed can be compared?
• Is the speed of time constant throughout the universe?

Labels: ,

Hi There!

Hello my friends! This is happening by accident: I wrote something and didn't know what to do with it, then realized it belonged on my blog, and said, "Why not?"

I'm not expecting to post as often as I used to, so I'll try to set up some feeds for people to subscribe to. This will probably take me longer than it would take you.

April 19, 2009

Lifting Water

An old man stood hip-deep in the ocean, lifting water. In a relaxed position, beginning with hands at sides, he raised his arms slowly, wrists bent at a sharp angle to the sky, fingers pointing down to exert their pull on the sea. Breathing deeply inward to reach all his power, he raised his hands to eye level, at which time the exertion of raising the waves caused him to expel his breath and slowly lower his arms. He repeated this action hundreds of times. The waves rose and fell, and washed in and out.

Two boys came along and, when they asked, he told them what he was doing. “Fool old man,” they said, “you not lifting water.”

“Then how do you explain the fact that every time I lift my arms, the water rises?” he said as they pelted him with sand. “Not only that, the weight of the water is strengthening my arms.”

“Water lifting you.” For indeed, every time a swell came, it carried him off his feet. “Water lifting water. You lifting you. Only thing not happening is you lifting water.”

“You have no understanding,” he said. The boys ran off, despising him with their laughter.

Ten years later, a huge wave came and washed away buildings, boats, and swimmers, and the old man died of grief. The next day one of the boys, a man now, stood hip-deep in the man’s old spot and began lifting water.


April 17, 2009

The Writing on the Bumper

I was driving along wondering at the way different people take different aspects of life seriously. Pleasure, art, love, knowledge, duty —— each has its factions of people who live by it or laugh at it. What would the best life take seriously? To what would the wise man pay attention so as to live all the way up?

Within five minutes I saw this painted in big capital letters on the back of a grimy, soot-belching gravel truck:


And this stamped on the license plate frame of a bright red new sedan:

"Life Is Freaky."

I wondered, what if the two vehicles crashed?

Labels: ,

On Whether to Hold Back

"You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided." – Kafka


April 16, 2009


A bird tries to nest in the mirror reflection of a tree. The bird flies into the mirror, which wobbles, falls, shatters.

Why not plant a new tree to replace the one that fell?

Labels: ,