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Melissa and Sycamores, Sam and Maples

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In the neighborhood where I was growing up there were sidewalks lined with trees — Rugby Road had Maples and Argyle road had what we called Sycamores, though they were really London Planes. The “Sycamores” made itchy balls as their fruit, the maples made two-lobed flat fruit that were played with as either helicopters or mustaches. Melissa hugged the sycamores for comfort, Sam hugged maples. Both of them would have received a diagnosis had they been alive today — standing in the street for hours hugging a tree is not normal. Sam was roughed up a little and socially shunned and teased, Melissa was just socially shunned and teased. Their lives were pretty unhappy. They’re both dead, Melissa’s tree was cut down when it dropped a limb and crushed a mini-van, though Sam’s tree is still there.

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Laurence — at the time he went for Larry — knew this story about Sam and Melissa and the trees and he brought it to his puppetry workshop which he joined after college, because he was lonely and wanted to do something to get out of the house. He had made himself take it seriously and typed up something on his Dad’s selectric and copied it at the local copy shop. Martha who was taking the class because she couldn’t stand her mother read it and said “It’s not real.” Laurence had to agree that her point was true. In his puppet show the trees had protected little Sam and Melissa from their tormentors. “What would you do, Martha?” asked the instructor, Marcus who was earning credits towards a combined theater and social work degree at Hunter College. “I’d have them fall in love.” said Martha.

“That’s not real either.” said Larry.

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Larry’s younger brother Phil in his last year after he broke his hip got very wandering and I’d go into his room to try to cheer him up. That’s when I heard this story. “Is any of it real? Hugging trees. Wandering through the days and nights. Looking for something? What were they doing? What was I doing?”

“Not really, grandpa.” I told him.

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I sometimes regret telling him that and wish I could have been the kind of person who knew what was real or was able to say “it’s all real grandpa”.

But I’m not.

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Working with Illusions or That’s Not Funny, Martha

Back in the day Martha and were running a small institute in Spiritual Science with a collection of underemployed philosophy PhDs, meditation teachers, sages without portfolio out of the top floor of a tenement on Avenue A on the Lower East Side. Our marketing was low-tech and aggressive — we would put up squibs on fences around construction sites and on the inside of the wood tunnels the city had to put up to protect pedestrians from being creamed by hunks of falling masonry and itself from being similarly creamed by lawsuits. I was in love with her, but I was never able to interest her in myself because I lack self-confidence, but I had accepted the situation that I could enjoy her beauty and general spitfire zazz from the distance of co-worker and co-teacher and this degree of semi-intimacy was better than none at all. In our curriculum meeting we decided that we were all set with martial arts (Sensei Dan Zuckerman), healing (master Herbalist Tor Krogius) and the deeper recesses of Advaita and neo-Platonism (this was actually a four course series taught by Ramsac Weinerwitz which ascended from the secret teachings of the pyramids all the way up to the evolving noosphere) but what we lacked was something showing the practical interplay between the most arcane mysteries and real life. So Martha and I decided to develop a course in working with illusions. And that step had consequences that although perhaps nugatory for the world at large were momentous for me, personally.

We stayed up late in the offices drinking Manhatan Specials I typing on the word processor, Martha striding back and forth looking through the big windows as the last taxis picked up the amorous drunks from the street, the lights of the city, the gleams of gray dawn, the street cleaning trucks with their huge rotating brushes and then the doormen leaving from their last shift and the salad bar workers arriving for their first shift, and us both discoursing on the muller lyer illusion. The Muller Lyer illusions shows two arrows that seem to be of different lengths but upon measuring them are the same length. But, we asked the students, who is to say that when we look at them looking to be different lengths we take same length to mean same measured length? Why does the practice of ruler and calculator have the right to call what our eyes tell us is an illusion? And why I asked myself does the fact that Marth doesn’t want me mean that what I am feeling right now — this pure joy — is an illusion? I am here with her now. She is looking at me now, she is glorious now! In a fever we finished the course description and prepared to place it on the website. But who should teach it? Me? Martha? Edison?

No said Martha. Sloan.

Who is Sloan?

Sloan will be our Bourbaki, she said enigmatically, but then –unusual for her — hastened to shed light on her enigma. Bourbaki was an imaginary mathematician a group of French algebraists had used to ascribe their results to. We will say our course in illusions is taught by Sloan, who is himself an illusion.

Wonderful! I said laughing. Wonderful!

The class reaped a surprising large harvest of students — enough that the Institute of Spiritual Science could pay its rent in a timely fashion and I, its president, did not have to abase myself by wheedling to our crude, and entirely unspiritual landlord Donald Klein. Every Tuesday at 8 pm for twelve weeks, with one off for the Christmas holiday I taught the students the uses of illusion. We discussed whether language actually meant anything. For one class I set up huge mirrors on either side of the room and the students were not allowed to look at each other directly but only at each other’s reflections. We parsed the distinction between eidolon and symbol, and I taught them both truths posing as falsehoods and falsehoods masquerading as truths.

I claimed to be Sloan’s teaching assistant. Martha claimed to be my teaching assistant. After the final student checked out and wandered down the ahoo stairs, we sat on the folding chairs and laughed and laughed.

For the final class we had a masquerade.

I addressed the class and said there was no Sloan, but I was their teacher in truth and my name was Kaplan.

Martha said — there is no Kaplan. This is an actor I have hired to teach you the difference between illusion and the illusion of an illusion.

I protested. The students all agreed it was obvious upon being told that I could not be the source of the profound spiritual truths that the class imparted. I reeked of inauthenticity. I was unimpressive. I lacked substance. Martha praised them.

“That’s not funny, Martha!” I said and did a great or at least adequate job of suppressing my tears. I stumbled down the stairs into the freezing cold of a February in alphabet city.

A young woman — I think she was Pakistani — approached me. She had been a quiet student but had been perfect on the written exams and had for her final project performed a dance based upon the Sufi classic “The Conference of the Birds” as it intersected with themes in contemporary dancehall music. I guess she was a dancer. Now that I think of it I don’t think she was Pakistani at all. I think she was Puerto Rican but had given herself an Islamic-sounding name as part of her act.

“Anybody who is good enough to perform the illusion that you performed is somebody I could really use on my team.”

“Team?” I asked her. “What team?”

She leaned in close to me — “Can you keep a secret?”

“I can.” It was true. “I am a tomb.” Sometimes I wondered if in fact I was a secret. Had she guessed.

“Some friends and I and you if you have the guts for it are going to steal the Diabelli Diamond.”

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A Journey with Frequent Stops

—is what Jonathan took on the six train on the way to mid-town where he was in seminary. At this time it was so crowded that he would actually sit in the motor man’s car because forget a place to sit, there was no place to stand. And he would use this forty minute to an hour journey from Brooklyn to mid-town to clarify his mind, or, what might be actually closer to an accurate description, to let his greatest fears and anxieties run free so that once having let them do their worst, his mind could rest easy.

–what Jonathan did was to sit where the motorman would sit and imagine he was being subjected to the ancient methods of execution — by burning, by stoning, by strangling, and I’m not sure the fourth one — maybe decapitation? You could ask somebody who knows, I think. Not important. But he would ask himself what is it that he would not do even if he was threatened with death at that very moment.

You know they have found that golf pros if they simply imagine taking a swing and don’t move their bodies at all, when it comes time to play on the green, their stroke actually improves, even though it was “all in their heads”. It was like that with Jonathan. He was able to find some clarity about what he believed was real, by putting himself through this exercise of what he would allow himself to be killed rather than deny.

And in a sense it gave him a sense of the ultimate goal of his life — because if he knew what was real then and there — while he was in the uptown six stopping at union square — as a young rabbinic student, not yet married, no kids — he got a bird’s eye view of what would always be true, at least always be true for him, even when he was a father, and a grandfather and on his actual last day — which it turned out was from cancer.

But what about all the rest of it? All the parts of his life that were not what he was willing to sacrifice his life for he was so sure of it? What of all the starts and stops on the way to that final moment of exhalation, in Mount Sinai, grandchildren gathered around, some of them sad, some of them looking at their phones.

What about that?

As the train started moving again he realized with a flesh-dissolving almost unbearable joy —

–I believe that too!

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Tell us a Story! What Kind of Story?

Ambrose wasn’t sure if he liked telling stories to the kids because he would get TOO into them, and if the stories were supposed to be scary HE would get scared and if they were supposed to be sad HE would get sad. And he wasn’t even sure if the kids liked the stories. And the parents — from what he had been told they DEFINITELY did not like the stories. They didn’t think he should tell them to children. They didn’t think he should tell the at all. They actually thought, and they didn’t mind saying it (or maybe they did but it didn’t stop them) there was something wrong with him, to think of such stories, and to tell them at all, and to tell the to children. But sometimes when the kids were restless the people whose job was to take care of the kids would bring Ambrose into tell them a story, and since Ambrose was a bit conflict-adverse he would oblige.

“Tell us a story!” the kids would say. “What kind of story?” the kids Ambrose would ask. “A scary story!” the kids would say.

And Ambrose would sigh and he would tell them:

This is the story of Clever Man when he was on a lonely country road. Clever Man could escape just about anything. But this night he knew something was chasing him that he didn’t think he could get away from.

What was it? asked the kids.

His own death, said Ambrose.

Oh. said the kids.

I fucked up thought Ambrose. The kids aren’t going to like this story. Anyway I can’t back out now thought Ambrose. And he continued.

So his own death looked just like him but at the end of his life, in his grave. And it was behind him on the lonely country road. And he would look back and just catch a glimpse of it. But when he looked forward to run away from him he knew it was closer. He knew it was looking at him. It wasn’t close enough to feel its breath on his neck — cold oh so cold but he could imagine it.

Ambrose looked at the kids. They deifnitely did not like this story at all.

But he got away.

How did he get away? asked one girl whose name was Mabel.

Well he got away by turning himself into a kid, a little kid, do you know why?

Why? asked Mabel.

Think. If you’re a little kid is your own death further away than if you’re a grown up.

You think it is, said Mabel. People say it is. But not necessarily. Because kids die.

They do. Did somebody you know die?

Yes said Mabel. My brother.

The other kids didn’t like how this was going even less than they did before!

But you know what? What did the death do that was chasing him? Did it give up? What do you think?

No said Mabel very quietly.

What did he do? He said if you’re going to hide as a child then I’m going to come after you. I’m going to come after you and tell you this very story. The story of a Clever Man on a country road who feels his own death behind him, and who runs away hiding as a child, and who then disguises himself as me, telling you this story right now, and at the end of it — you die.

No, said Mabel, at the end of it YOU DIE.

And she killed Ambrose right then and there.

They took her away to a facility for children who do things like that and she was there for a few years and then got out and became a successful writer of mystery stories.

The End.

When Ambrose told happy stories it worked out a little bit differently. So, Ambrose asked the children, what kind of story do you want me to tell? Because a lot depends upon it, not just the middle and the beginning but most importantly, the end.

So think a little bit before you answer the question “What kind of story do you want me to tell?”

Because it’s up to you.

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interesting — to me! — conversation with a Brucist

when I was in Albany the people downstairs from me — transport engineering grad students from Iran — were Brucists, members of a small religion that believed the Infinite One took human form in the person of a seller of stamps and other collectibles from Brooklyn named Bruce Feldman, who passed on in 1930. I asked him why the infinite one would take such a particular form of finitude to express itself in.

His answer:

The infinite will always express itself by means of finite characteristics that do not do justice to the infinite, because they are finite, and how can the limited encompass the unlimited? However there are two kinds of such characteristics. The first type are those characteristics that serve as models for our search, from the finite, for the infinite. Such as the fact that Bruce sold stamps, which are a perfect symbol of starting in one place and because of having the correct semiosis or signs, traveling someplace else. The second type, are those characteristics that are random or arbitrary, for example the fact that his name is Bruce, which is a detail of the finite which bears only the marks of the finite. The second type serve simply to teach us that the finite is not the infinite, that it is limited and in a sense arbitrary, in other words, that the finite is in fact finite. Although since the purpose of learning that the finite is in fact finite is to know and seek its opposite — the Infinite — the second type of characteristic is actually just another version of the first.

I said I did not believe in Bruce.

He said, you believe in the Infinite One?

I said, sure.

He said — then you have the same problem. The human being is a creation of the Infinite. Some of his features — that he can conceive of the Infinite — bear the marks of his maker. Others — that he has ten fingers rather than eight or twelve, do not. Yet both lead us to our source.

And what about those who think the Infinite is mindless and purposeless? What is the difference between a Limtless one whose mind and purpose are unknown, because Infinite, and one that simply lacks mind and purpose.

Bruce be Praised!, he said smilingly, and took me down to his room where he and his wife made me rice with chicken and pomegranites and lit incense before a three-cent stamp.

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“Early 90s Werewolf Obsession” and “The Hunter for Options”

it’s pretty hard to explain what the whole werewolf thing was like, back in the early 90s, before we got it under control with the latest generation of treatments. It was scary man! It was really scary! I couldn’t stop thinking about it! I didn’t even want to. Then Chabby said to me “You know if you really wanted to cut the tie to the werewolves you’d stop fighting them and just move on to something else — because when you think about something –even if what you think is — I don’t want that! — even — I hate that! — it becomes a part of you.” “You’re right Chabby, but what can I do? Don’t you have the same problem with divisiveness and aggression — you’re always thinking about how to stop it, so it’s a part of you. Right? Right?” Why didn’t Chabby answer me — it was a perfectly good point. Thinking back about it it makes me think of the time I was hunting for options, and somebody, I think somebody different, though it might have been him, or even me, said to me “Isn’t the need for options hunting you — in fact, didn’t it catch you?”

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New Ways to Build Trust

In the old days it was easier to build trust, but we can’t go back to the old days, because anybody who spoke the way they did in the old days, we could not trust, because we have discovered new ways of tricking people, and once learned, these cannot be unlearned.

A long time ago if somebody cried it meant he was really upset, but then we learned to pretend to cry, and now you can’t trust it.

So what to do?

People have developed new ways of signaling their trustworthiness. It is like an arms race.

Literature is a tool in the smoking out of forms of deceit and the development of new forms of trust-signaling. For example, the romantics tried to signal trustworthiness by going on endlessly about their inner feelings. It wasn’t because they were self-indulgent. It was because at the time they were writing the fakes had not looked within enough to talk at length about their feelings, so somebody who did talk at length about his feelings was more likely to be trustworthy. Of course that is not true anymore and hasn’t been for a while — but that is why romantic literature gave way to a bracingly ironic chilly style. It was to teach people that you couldn’t trust somebody who analyzed his subjective experience to be trustworthy — he could be a self-regarding monster. And so on.

It means you can long for the simplicity of an old way of expression — eg the Bible –but must be very wary of anyone who uses that way of expression today — most likely they are a trickster who are looking for an unusally gullible audience who have not encountered that trick before. The pious fraud carries the tricks of an outmoded era into a vulnerable population that has not yet gotten the news.

It’s not something to be lamented, but something to be noticed, because every new form of deceit gives rise to a more refined and sophisticated way of building trust.

In the old days you could just write a religious parable. But nowadays to have the simplicity of a religious parable you must have the deliberate ambiguity of Kafka.

It’s not something to be lamented because the new forms of signaling trust are more sophisticated. But nor is it something to be celebrated as the new ways to build trust do not lead to people trusting each other more than they once did. They trust each other exactly as much. And that’s, give or take, and for the most part, exactly as much as they should.

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