Tiny Chinese Umbrellas

At the New China Inn on Flatbush Avenue in the 1970s a dish was available called “Pu Pu Platter” which was served with small paper umbrellas. On the top of each umbrella was a coiled nub of paper, and this nub of paper when removed and unrolled, revealed messages written in Chinese characters. After several trips over the course of many years I collected enough strips of paper from the umbrellas that I was able to read a story. But it wasn’t until many years later that I was able to understand it.

The story dealt with the struggles of the Shang Emperor to achieve immortality by consuming a magic pill, and how he in the course of gaining the ingredients for this magic pill lost many things: his wife, his son, his parents, and ultimately his kingdom. At the end of the story he is alone on the mountain top having assembled the ingredients of the pill, while below in the plains the kingdom of Shang is aflame. He takes the pill, his “moon embraces his sun” a celestial phoenix arrives, he transforms into the phoenix and it into him — better — “their two chis flow into one another” — and together, united they return to their home in the Western paradise.

In my 20s, when I was losing much to gain little I believed that this story was a cautionary tale, warning me not to give away the truly valuable things of life — wife, peace and family — in order to gain what is uncertain — a fantasy goal. Strange that I thought the story was valuable because it chastised me for living the very life I was leading!

In my 60s, when I had gained much and was proud of what I had gained I thought the story was actually offering me a recipe for how to perfect it. I thought the ingredients of my life were the rooster’s comb, the ear gem of the wood serpent. I thought my struggles were the fire, and my unruly heart was the alchemical furnace!

And now? You know I cannot tell you where I am or who I am, or how I came to be here.

If I did, you might try to follow and we can’t have that!

But the story written in the Chinese umbrella seems to me not even a story any more but a list of facts, like the ingredients on a can of pears.

Pears, Water, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Acesulfame Potassium, Sucralose.

Just add your thirsty mouth.


Pasta Syndrome

“Deep down I am worried that your decision to make me a god was a mistake, Noble One” said Shenrajib “And that is why the creatures in my universe look dumb, and do dumb things, and the sunsets are ok but not beautiful.”

“Why would I make a mistake, Shenrajib?” said the Noble One, smiling from his flying galaxy palace on everyone of his ten million beautiful faces “Don’t you think I am all-knowing.’

“I do.” Noble One, said Shenrajib guiltily “But in that one aspect, of choosing me to be a god, I think maybe…you screwed up.”

The Noble One laughed. “You have what is known as Pasta Syndrome! Try to get better and look at yourself more favorably. Because your creatures by nature will worship you and look to you for guidance, and if you don’t trust yourself — what then?”

A mess thought Shenrajib. Tell me something I don’t know. He was seeing his friend the Blue Loveliness who was a creator goddess of a much better universe, where the creatures were some kind of trippy combination of songs and multi-dimensional shapes and like, profound jokes or something, he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it, but something much better than his nuclear-power using monkeys. Blue Loveliness was lovely and gracious, as always, but she couldn’t help smirking a little when he told her the story of his encounter with Noble One and his resolve afterwards to watch his weight, to cut out all delicious food that made him feel good, and somehow get the drop on the dreaded god-dooming Pasta Syndrome.

“What?” he asked her finally.

“Not pasta syndrome. Imposter syndrome.” she said smiling gently.

“Of course.” he said. He considered briefly trying to pretend that he knew it was imposter syndrome and had just said “pasta syndrome” to be funny and thought better of it. Blue Loveliness was omnscient.

When he returned to the heaven of his universe Shenrijab felt terrible. What kind of phony crap god would have imposter syndrome! He was the worst. He. cried a lot, ate a lot of pasta, and ultimately decided this wasn’t punishment enough. What was the best punishment for a creator god who was blowing it because of his own neurosis, his own stupid lack of self-trust, crappy low confidence. He ate ravioli to the point of coma and then had an insight. He decided he would punish himself and actually turn himself into one of his pathetic murderous lying monkey creatures and bear their suffering. He deserved no better.

He did it. The same but different thing was hard but after a little bit he got the hang of it. He was born in a monkey uterus and lived his monkey life while at the same time being God. And after a few years they killed him. Cause what else would they do?

After the Last Judgment when the sky rolled up like a scroll, Shenrajib was surprised to find all the Noble Ones and Holy Ones and Ancient Ones clapping him on the back, applauding him. “What a move this one! Actually suffering the fate of his own creatures! I told you I expected big things from him and I was right!” said Noble One to his boss, Super Noble One. “When you’re right you’re right!” said Super Noble One and gave them both cigars, and clapped Shenrajib on the back. “If on your very first assignment you crack the problem of the divide between creator and creature, what can we expect of you on your second one! Come with me, there’s somebody I want you to meet!”

Shenrijab smiled weakly and followed him down the corridor. Outside he was happy but on the inside he was sad. Because he knew the accolades had been stolen — he hadn’t Incarnated out of a noble desire to raise his creatures to his level, but out of a dumb desire to roll in the mud with them because he knew that was what He deserved.

He was a fake.


Honestly? King Neptune’s Nets

Most people aren’t interested, but a good biological historian will tell you that you that our species evolved on a planet two thirds of the surface of which was covered with water but, oddly enough, our ancestors lived and attained sentience and technology, walking upon land. As a consequence their range of motion was for all practical purposes limited to two dimensions: forward, backwards, right, and left. Their planetary brothers and sisters — called “fish” and “octopuses” and “whales” and “seals” and other odd monikers — were not limited in this regard, being able to move freely in three dimensions: forward and back, right and left, up and down. As a consequence water — the ocean — fluid — even space itself — has for us, deep in our cogntive-aesthetic-emotional wiring, a connotation of mystery and freedom. The chance of going forward and then suddenly taking a turn in an under-theorized dimension, up and down. And this is why, also, death seems to us a bit like a mysterious ocean, and so do all endings, and it is, at the end of the day, why our imaginative resources for dealing with the Infinite, upon whose edge our glorious array now stands ready to do battle, are like those of land-dwellers embarking upon the sea. We know we will step forward, one foot ahead of another, but our feet will soon lose contact with solid ground and we will float free. Yes, we will float free after the heat death. And the next direction we will travel on, all of us, from the tiniest computer to the galaxy-sized information hub, will be down.


Brass Tube

…explanation of the phenomenon VASCULUM AENEUM or brass tube found in the workshops of warlocks, namely that the Magister could by means of powerful incantations relying upon a knowledge of the secret names of certain carcerate deities change the underlying preconceptions that undergird the world, making perhaps the wisest being shellfish, or time run on the diagonal, or the number of sexes drop from eight to three, or eliminating the fractional soul, or connecting music not to love but to jealousy, or commerce commencing between high and heart, low and threatening, where before these had been distinct, but the effectiveness of such grammaries would be oblique and occluded to all including the warlock himself because the change was so thorough and entire, unlocking as it did no part but rather the Totality, hence the successful mage would to his own self-examination be it however scrupulous seem unsuccessful to himself, because all remnant be it in writing or computer file or library or the memory of friend or foe or self alike would be altered to harmonize with the world invoked by his invocation, thus one mage Ambo Teedeck by name resolved that one person would always be locked within a TUBE OF BRASS, brass being impervious to his spellcraft, and after the incantation he could always consult with that being and ask him to describe whether the secret letters that described the world were clear to him or obscure, this obscurity being a measure of whether a deep profound and illimitable change had been affected outside the boundaries of the brass tube, though in his deathbed confession — as he perhaps learned to love TRUTH or to FEAR HELLE – he vouchsafed the secret that from within the aperture of the tube the only voice resounding thereof said only “let me in let me in”…


Realms, Realms, Realms

This is one I’m afraid to tell, not because the content is scary — it’s not — but because I have good reason to think I’m going to fail. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience. It’s like your mind is a hand and it is grabbing a huge ball whose curvature is so great that your fingers barely get purchase on it. And if you let it go — you feel like an idiot, because you feel like the things you were trying to think, they’re not Unthinkable in any grand sense — the sort of Unthinkable that is honored by the failure to think it and perhaps even thereby thunk! — but, rather, you just fucked up. But on the other hand, if we only tried things we knew we could do — as a cow tries to eat grass and, mouthful by mouthful succeeds — life would be much less fun.


The characters in this story are named Ebershaw, Moaree, and Be-shar. Ebershaw and Moaree were in a bus-station late at night traveling from the provincial capital, to the hill station where they were doing their research for the department of science, and had to change buses and wait in the middle of the night at Palar-T’ko. The station was cold. The floor was sticky. A peddler sold rice and coconut steamed in banana leaf, and computers, and quill pens, but even he had called it a night and gone to sleep under his pedal-rickshaw before Ebershaw and Moaree arrived. There was nothing to do but hug each other to keep warm, look at the crane flies and damsel flies wheeling, phototropically around the station’s light fixtures, and explore what could be bought for one or two or five Dragoons from the bus station vending machine, a surly and truculent item that if you pulled out a spring-loaded dispensing lever might vouchsafe on you a Broca Bar or a bag of Mirmios or a little game. Or might not!

The little game they got was a game of making Realms, and once you set up the little folded piece of paper and little rings, and defined your terms, and said what the rings were and what the map was a map of — they spread it out on the greasy cold table between their two chairs — that was your Realm. And Be-shar was the one who Came to Pass Within That Realm. Its king maybe. Or its child? I don’t know.

To Be-shar, Ebershaw and Moaree were mother and father though I think if you were going to assign a gender to them you would probably say Ebershaw was feminine and Moaree was feminine-^ if you have the ___-^ genders where you come from? I don’t know if you do. But that’s what they were, and lovely with long flowing ears, and all the requisite teeth as well as the “Three Startling Teeth” which have become so popular these days, and deservedly so.

Well any brute bear can make a cub, but what makes a human being a human being is when we bring forth into the world we don’t just provide some genes and protoplasm we provide stories. We don’t just send the bowling ball to knock down the pins we answer those questions: why were we bowling that morning, when the crocuses were singing and kissed by the spring air, and so many moments were flowering! Why bowl then?

Why indeed!

“Well” said Ebershaw to his son Be-shar “I did it from guilt. Because I was a vile young man. And at the college we would take advantage of the poor girls from the village down the road, because we were wealthy and had servants, and they were simple and poor. And I told your mother that I had magic powers, and tricked her, and that is how we became lovers and why I am your father and she is your mother!”

Why am I calling them mother and father and man and woman and son? I’m as confused as Ebershaw! Because Moaree said, laughing “I never thought he had magic powers at all! I was able to pour water into the bowl and see the future, and understand that I was the one who could teach him and his whole tribe to stop feeling slaves to guilt, which was a relatively recent problem of theirs, dating back to a confusion suffered by his father’s father’s mother, who angry at being passed over by an inheritance in a fight with her cousin, had taught her son that they were terribly sinned against, and that any moment he didn’t spend brooding upon the injustices that she had suffered at the hands of her cousin, was stealing from her — not paying her back for his very life! What a silly thing I thought, and I saw his face in my bowl of water, and I saw your face, Be-shar! And I said while we are on a trip on good work from the Department of Science we will make your Realm and you the Child of the Realm, and you will ask the question and the lights will go on in your father’s eyes!”

Ebershaw was amazed! He loved his wife then more than he ever had before, more than he ever knew he was capable of.

When the peddler woke up they each bought a treat of rice and coconut and shared it, and smiled, and teased each other, by rubbing it on each other’s faces.

In the early dawn light the bus creaked its way into the station. They climbed aboard and found seats. The bus expelled the air from it brakes and headed off into the morning mist and was gone, wheezing its way up the road to the hill station. The sun was brilliant — it was going to be a hot day. Steam rose from the paddies, and the local deities leered at them from their weather-beaten wooden palaces as they passed, placing stone rings on leather maps, thousands of years old, printed on the hides of long-extinct beasts, glyptodon, dimetrodon, singing rude but rollicking songs.


The Way We Do It Now

This story is a really good one, but unfortunately I have forgotten most of it — I was putting it together in my mind but then there was an emergency, my brain got rattled by adrenaline, and now here I am, trying to recollect what it was all about in tranquility, and all I have is scraps. Suggestive scraps.

One part is a character who is able to tell about a previous civilization, a much more advanced group of technological folk — our guy is a farmer — based upon the shapes of the earthworks they left behind.

A second part is about the word Busillis, which is a medieval word meaning a terribly hard puzzle, because some medieval scribe was asked to explain what “Busillis” was to the king, and he finally realized that there was no Busillis, that it was a miswriting of “dies illes” or something — these days. And in this part of the story everybody is aware that there is a cycle of civilization, that they come and go, and that each one leaves behind a few traces for the next one to perceive that stand out as things that don’t make sense, that are impossible to assimilate.

And then as I was trying to put these two pieces together I imagined a friend of mine (and this is the third part, Scrap the Third) a friend from twitter whom I have never met in real life, who has developed a way to understand literature using mathematics, and has built a machine that does this using gears and string, and that he is able to take these first two pieces — the farmer with his earthworks that are symbols of an earlier civilization and the monk with his search for Busillis that lets him realize life is a palimpest — that it is precisely those things we don’t understand that are the most real, because the fact that we don’t understand them means they are erupting from a previous sediment of reality, bursting through our methods of understanding things from deep time into now — the frisky present — and my friend (whom I have never met) was setting up his gears and his strings and getting ready to turn the switch from off to on and let me hear the story that I had almost told myself and forgotten, so I could tell you what it is, right here, right now.


First Lessons on the First Cold Day: The Ein Sof

Walking and feet really hurting gathering berries I sat down in the boll of a tree and asked father to help answer some of my questions, maybe dispel some of my confusion. He said okay. What have you got?

Why am I constantly held back and stopped?

Easy, you’re not. Because if there were no stops between berries and that which is not good to eat, between trees and spaces between the trees, you couldn’t be walking with me, gathering berries in the basket. I mean honestly, son, without the space inside the basket there coulnd’t be a basket. I’m sure you remember that one.

I do. So is there ever a place where I’m not going to be stopped?

Sure — it’s called the place where the stops stop.

But that’s like a super-stop?

Well what do you want to call it when they stop stopping?

Are you really my father?

How can I be your father, asked the wolf? I am a wolf.

He was gone if he had ever been there, but even though it was beginning to snow and my feet were called!called!cold! I was able to fill a basket with berries, and then another, before it would be time to turn home.


How I Came to Be

My mother was raised as an Orthodox Jew in a poor immigrant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 30s known as “East New York” and she fell for my father who was a dangerous character and a card shark, the son of a prominent Mafioso and lawyer for the thoroughly mobbed-up teamsters union, who, eye-catching suffered from alopecia areata and entirely lacked hair, eyebrows, eyelashes the works. I honestly made the common male mistake of thinking that my mother was the uptight one and my father was the wild one, but a little math will show you how this is always wrong. Who is wilder, the minotaur or the girl who loves the minotaur? The girl. Because she chose to make a baby with a minotaur! Her troping is towards the weird. The plain old minotaur just chose a girl, and why wouldn’t he. That’s the way of minotaurs.

A lot of things had been going tangled for me for years and i thought maybe if I knew how I came to be the way I was I could unspool them, get back to where they got tangled up, straighten it out, and get out of the trap I semeed to find myself deeper and deeper in every day. So I thought — why not ask my Grandma Gussie? Why did a good Jewish girl who never got less than an A on a test on her life choose to leave it all behind and marry a louche character like dear old Dad?

Her answer:

The bold ones always break the rules.

So the old ones have to make the rules

Knowing they will be broken, by their boldest daughters

Of whom they are proudest. Had I forbidden only murder

She would have found herself a murderer and you would stand before me

Now you with your questions, as a half-murderer

If even you chose to frame your own rebellion

As a murder, and not a question. No, as a wise Grandma

I made the rules strict, I made the standard an unreachable conscientiousness

So when my favorite daughter rebelled, she took the steps towards light

And birthed a falling star, now go and wander but rechristen your wandering

As a plumbline descent towards the heart

Of what I desire, of what I have always desired of what

My grandmas before me have desired.”

Wow Grandma I said, most Grandmas wouldn’t give me such an honest answer.

-Them? she said, handing me a second piece of noodle kugel. They are bad Grandmas.


I’m Going to Say This To You

Marty I’m going to say this to you and when I say it to you I want you to listen. –Do you understand? Because if you don’t understand I want you to tell me. I want you to say to me I understand. –And I’m going to say something else to you — I want you to understand the details and how they fit together, not just at the street level, but for the basement. I want you to understand the details for the street. And I want you to understand the details for the basement. And I don’t want you to say you understand if you don’t.

Marty I’m going to say it again and I’m sorry but also I’m not sorry because I’m telling you what I think. I don’t trust you. I don’t believe that you understand. I don’t think you have a step by step understanding. At best I’m going to be honest I think you have like a superficial knowledge. You’re more of a talk about it guy than an actually do it guy. And if I’m wrong I’m wrong and you should tell me but I don’t think that I’m wrong. Because I don’t see you being able to recall the details and I don’t see you being able to recall the details in the right order. Not for the street and not for the basement level structures. Which is really a problem.

Because last time that’s what you did. You said you understood and you didn’t. You said I didn’t need to ask you the details and you implied, not by saying but by tone of voice and so on, that it was insulting that I would ask you if you had the details at hand and could recall them to mind. And you didn’t. You know it. I know it. Luis knows it. He really knows it.

Even if I said I trust you it wouldn’t make it so. It wouldn’t make it so for me, it wouldn’t make it so for Luis, and it wouldn’t make it true for you either. Because being able to recall the details to mind, under pressure, for the various situations that could come to pass, either on street level, or down in the basement, or even in the water room, that’s not just subjective, that’s not a I want it to be true so it is true thing, it’s an either it is or it isn’t thing. You either understand or you don’t.


The Prisoner of Freedom

Then there was the woman who was seated in a chair, looking at a wall and who believed that if she just thought about her situation in the right way, and exercised her deep, fundamental freedom, the wall would reveal itself to be an illusion and she could get up and walk through it like a wall of mist and live her life, and failing that, could simply decide to view her life from the vantage point which made it seem that all points in space were equal and she was no more free or unfree seated in her chair and staring at the wall than she would be bounding through a forest and washing her long red hair in the waterfall. She neglected the fact that just a few steps behind her there was an open door that she could way through without exercising her deep, fundamental freedom at all. You could say she was a prisoner of freedom. Or of her idea of freedom maybe….Same thing.