My Pet Ratite — My Giant Duckling Pal

I once did a good turn for an Indian holy man.  It wasn’t anything very special.  This is not false modesty although that’s something I do quite a bit — it is one of my moves — but what I did for Swami Narendrabodhi really was not much. I saw him walking down canal street with his begging bowl, past Canal Plastics, and I started a conversation with him, and I told him about a Thai wat in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and took him there on the subway. We talked a little bit about his thoughts on various topics — socialism vs. capitalism, the world tree, life before and after birth — and I dropped him off and gave him six dollars, which is what I had, and also my address.

I thought nothing of it, and did not even connect it when I received a package in the mail covered with brown paper with Sri Lankan stamps and the return address in a peculiar penmanship — Jaganatha Narendrabodhi Wat Surathani Kandy Sri Lanka.

Inside was a large egg, about the size of a volleyball, with specks and the instructions to keep it under a sunlamp.

The creature that emerged looked like a duckling although it was the size first of a cocker spaniel and soon after I fed it — him — I named him Joseph — it grew to the size of a laborador retriever.

Joseph is covered with downy yellow feathers like a duckling, and has a ducklings joy and mischievousness.

He is my best friend in the whole world.  He wakes me up in the morning by putting his bill in my face and quacking.

We take baths together.

I put the collar around his neck and take him for runs in the park.

When he becomes a full grown duck we will still be friends, but it will be more like I am the older brother and he is the younger brother.

We will go away together.


Fake Sincerity and Hyper-Skepticism

If nobody ever stole people would not have to lock their doors.

But people steal, so people lock their doors.

If nobody ever lied, people would not have to doubt others’ sincerity.

But people lie, so you do have to doubt other’s sincerity.

If every time somebody said ‘I’m a sick person. I should never have done what I did! I will seek therapy.” they really meant that, then you would not have to doubt the sincerity of such statements.

But people say that as a strategy to blunt criticism and avoid consequences, so you do have doubt the sincerity of such statements.

Fake sincerity gets faker and faker and skepticism must get hyperer and hyperer to react to it in an arm’s race.

Would the world be a better place if people could just trust each other?

I suppose.  Better in some ways and worse in others.  Certainly less interesting.  But maybe less exhausting!


Terach and Abraham: Two Early Treatment Protocols for Anxiety

Anxiety was endemic to the ancient world because the agricultural tech was able to support large populations but the life of each individual member of the population was vulnerable to disease an inter and intra-specific predation as well as resource failure e.g. famine.

Terach developed the treatment protocol of idolatry.  Patients were instructed to create a physical representation of a figure that could reduce anxiety — usually an idealized parent — mother or father (Marduk or Ishtar) but sometimes an idealized king.  In the event of anxiety patients would talk to the idol and ask for protection.  There were also portable idols to be carried in the pocket or worn as jewelry.

The son of Terach, Abraham, encountered the syndrom of Idol Anxiety.  Patients would worry their idol would fail, was in disrepair, had been constructed poorly, was angry at them, and feel anxiety.  Abraham developed Monolatry — the construction of a mental or imagined idol, which would not suffer the vulnerabilities of a stone or wooden idol.  Patients were instructed to imagine the idol either in the sky or in their heart, because the sky would remain present always, and the heart would remain present for the duration of the patient’s life.

Legend has it that Abraham destroyed his father’s therapeutic practice, actually destroying his idols.  More likely this was an economic attack — his competing practice drew clients away from his father’s.

A more charitable reading of the legend is that towards the end of his career Abraham imagined his idol as like his father — a paternal presence that followed him constructing idols to soothe his pain as the situation demanded.  Every person, every day, every breeze and ray of sunshine was an idol his father constructed for him.

On this reading Terach’s ultimate idol was his own son, who relieved his anxiety with the hope that his compromises with anxiety would some day no longer be needed.

From what I know of fathers and son I am sure Terach thought that, but also sure that he had a voice within him that said “Some day.  But not yet.”


Ariadne in the Maze

My mother worked in the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library after she was laid off from her job as a teacher in the New York City public schools due to the budget cutbacks of the 1970s.   The Grand Army Plaza library which is the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system is convenient to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and Linden Boulevard, a Caribbean neighborhood which during the summer can make you feel Brooklyn is a misplaced Caribbean city that has fallen in the North Atlantic, fallen to its misfortune because by February life is slush and sleet and freezing wind and snow.

During one such winter my mother left a note within a large dictionary that lay open on a light blonde oak lectern in a reading room illuminated by a shaft of nearly invisible sun and heated to orchid-growing temperature by the giant steam radiators.  The note, written on a light blue index card cut in half by my mother’s nail scissors (this was before post-its –did you know the post-it glue was invented first and the post-it note was developed as a way to use the glue, reversing the traditional order of filiation between invention and necessity?) was next to the word “obsess”, and read “female of OBS.  cf. lion/lioness.”

It is unhealthy for a son to speculate on the psychology of his mother, or so my father had intimated to me more than once.  So why my mother left this note is not a question I choose to exert myself to answer — my life is busy, I am a professional, I have many obligations.  But I can assure you it was not because she found it funny.  I knew my mother for eighty-nine years before she finally passed away due to Alzheimer’s dementia, and she never,  indicated anything like a sense of humor.  Not once.

During the twilight of her ratiocinative powers my mother believed there were borders living in her room.  They frightened her at times, angered her at times, and at times made her amused — she chuckled at the children living in the closet.  Some of that of course was the influence of seraquil, by why shouldn’t liminal children, perceived by the poisoned brain be the cause of sometimes anger, sometimes love, sometimes resignation at the face of their mystery?  Real children are.

Obs being the masculine creature of which obsess is the female form?  What detail of my mother’s life will help you unlock that one, should unlocking my mother be what your boat needs for floating?  Perhaps this will be help you, courageous reader.  In a book of mineralogy whose cover bears the title “Obsidian for Mining and Metallurgy” is another note in my mother’s 1930s public school perfect penmanship.  It reads:

“This book is an allegory.  Obsidian is not a mineral.  Obsidian is a place.  Cf. the writings of the Earl of Omm.”

Earl of Omm.  O,m,m.  Obsidian for Mining and Metallurgy.

A book of central European peerage, deep within the stacks, misfiled, with no cover, thoroughly vandalized in crayon, gives a list of Jews who were ennobled by the Hapsburgs. There is no Earl of Omm there, but next to a brief biography of the Marquess D’Ahm (born Salvator Brusky-Brody, a rogue scion of the Szczeciner Hasidic dynasty who lost his throne because of an enthusiasm for Jesus) is a note from my mother “Children’s books by Polish Logicians are worth a read!”.

Did you know that the great Polish logician Lesnievski who said that you could quantify over a left parenthesis wrote a series of children’s tales in which he retells the Greek myths to teach Polish children to be more logical?  My mother did!  In his retelling of the myth of Theseus Ariadne balls of yarn never lets Theseus rescue her.  Instead Ariadne is twins — Ariadne-1 and Ariadne-2.  Ariadne-1 constructs a myth of Theseus rescuing her from the minotaur.  Ariadne-2 reads it and rescues her sister.  The two Ariadnes becomes lovers and construct a golem as their son.   The placement of the story in Lesnievski’s collection places it between two retellings of the myth of Narcissus.  The thread through Lesnievski’s maze, if not Ariadne’s is clear — Ariadne-1 and Ariadne-2 are two aspects of the same person who fell in love with herself and split herself into quester and finder, seeker and goal, lover, and beloved, obs and obsess.

Who was the Minotaur?  I was the Minotaur.

No question, Lesnievski like me, like all males suffered from uterus envy.  Unable to have a child we imitate creation, mock it, exalt it, degrade it.  Not an obsess, but just an obs, we worship the act of creation instead of simply creating.

I asked my mother if my father was Theseus, the rescuer who found her weaving her traps in the stacks and took her out of there, married her, giving her a family and a new life in the sun?

Your father? she said laughing.  Absolutely not!


Freedom from Self-Doubt

Reading a Vox piece about the writer’s experience giving tours of slave quarters, she encountered a lot of angry, older, white people who wanted to say slavery was not so bad.  They said things like “Weren’t those slaves grateful for the good deal they got?  Shouldn’t they have been more loyal, rather than trying to escape all the time?”  A weird response, right?  Are these people idiots?

I think not.  I think what these people are struggling with is the desire to be free of self-doubt.

Unconsciously they are going through the following reasoning

1)If slavery is bad then I need to think about my life

2)If I think about my life I’m going to lose confidence in my life

3)Losing confidence in my life feels really bad.  Worse, it is paralyzing.  I won’t be able to raise my children, run my business, go to work, find a mate, if I lack confidence and am plagued by self-doubt.

4)Therefore slavery must not be so bad.

This reasoning is not so bad.   Sure there’s an element of self-gaming and self-manipulation but that’s true of  many chains of reasoning we respect more — Pascal’s wager, or fake it till you make it in AA, or the power of positive thinking, or Stoicism — don’t feel bad about not having things you’ll never get.

I think the only way to combat this meaning is to figure out a way that self-doubt can be fun.  To view greater knowledge about the world — history, other people, slavery — as a an opportunity for fun. Isn’t it cool to know the actual story of race relations in this country?  And not just from a nerdy perspective (nerds aren’t cool — duh) but from a confident, fun perspective.  People need to be trained to feel that the more they know the more they can do and the more fun they can have and that only chickens need to put their heads in the sand to have a fun life with money, friends and girl or boyfriends.

Have at it, Democrats!




The Wisdom of Speech in the Word of Salvator

When I was twenty-three I was very proud and very ashamed.  I was too proud to take help from anybody; I had moved out of my parents’ house and worked as a legal temp, putting my ninety words per minute typing speed to good use making five hundred a week, and living in a one bedroom apartment in Harlem.  I was ashamed because I hadn’t achieved my goals.  I wanted to be a philosopher like Plato and I was so ashamed that I would ride the subway in February and take down my hood my face was burning so hot with shame.

I met Salvator in a class on metaphysics I had taken at the Learning Annex.  The teacher was a round-faced partridge-shaped woman who wore shoulder pads and a big mystic pendant.  She spoke to entities. I don’t think she was a con-woman; I don’t think she spoke to entities; I’m pretty sure what she perceived as entities were submerged pieces of her own soul.  One of them was named Fernando.  He was eight thousand years old.

I recognized Salvator from the class afterwards (it was held in P.S. 8 on the Lower East Side).  He had brought his dinner in a brown paper bag as had I and we agreed to eat on a park bench and talk.  November in New York at 8 pm and the wind going down the big east west streets — in this case Houston — carried a real bite.  The cold made the city bleak but it was a hospitable bleakness, it offered comfort perhaps most to those who could not otherwise be comforted.  When Salvator talked there would be drops of foam on his upper lip.  He had to get dialysis twice a week and was on disability from his job as some sort of inspector for Con Edison.

When I shared my ambition with him of becoming a philosopher Salvator told me that had tried to study Plotinus as a youth but was convinced that the Enneads had been written in a code and the key had been lost.  He had studied with something that he referred to vaguely as “the School” — when I got to know him better I learned that this “school” was really just one woman who had been his lover in the 1940s and had explained certain things to him.  He said that he lacked the strength because of his kidney disease to make any further discoveries but he would pass what he knew on to me.

The basic idea he told me was that there are two kinds of things in this world — things and utterances.  The mistake modern thought made was to believe that utterances had to have an utterer.  This was just a mistake — not wishful thinking, not an illusion, not a fantasy, but a simple error.  We generalize from our own utterances to think speech must have a speaker.  But in many important cases there are utterances that nobody speaks.

We are such cases.

He told me as it got colder and colder what this meant, and it had been worked out — by him?  By “the school” (was there even a school?) in great, and I will say, convincing detail.

A metaphor is an utterance that says something is like something else — the “head” of a company means he leads it, as a head leads a body.  So some people are metaphors.  So, some lives get their meaning by being like something else — this man is a metaphor for his father, this woman is a metaphor for martyrdom, these people together are a metaphor for the sun rising in the morning.

Metonym is an utterance that says something is near something else — a “crown” for example may mean a king.  Some people get their meaning by where they are. This man lives in America and his life is a metonym for the country he happened to have been born in.

Tmesis is when a word is interrupted by another word — abso-fucking-lutely.  The first word is split and it causes us to wait for the first word to be over for us to know what the whole is.  So people’s lives are interrupted — by a war, raising a family, a marriage that begins and then ends in divorce or a spouse’s death — and only when the interruption is over do they complete what they need to say.

Praeteritio means when we say something by avoiding saying it.  In other words I say “I will not mention the mayor’s notorious philandering” and by doing so, I mention it. So most of us who live lives avoiding something — lying, or a belief in God, or a betrayal, or over kindness — are actually living a life in tribute to expressing the thing which we avoid.

It was a sound doctrine. It was extremely cold.  The Christmas lights had star-shaped patterns around them from the tear-freezing nature of the cold.  I could not get Salvator’s phone number as he had no phone and this was before the internet.  I suppose he is gone now but his echo resounds.












The Moment of Sleep

The moment of sleep is the moment of losing or voluntarily surrendering control; it can be either depending upon which way we imagine it, from the perspective of sleep overtaking us, or the perspective of our wakeful selves giving up the effort to cohere and allowing ourselves to deliquesce into sleep.  My friend tells me that you can know you are dreaming if you try to use a clock or a smart phone and find it is impossible.  I have no idea if this is true, or if anyone knows if it is true.  I can’t remember if I am able to read in sleep, or if I can recognize myself in a mirror.  Do mirrors work in sleep?  Some people claim that they are able to control their dreams,  noticing “I am dreaming!” and then building upon that realization further to think “I can control my dreams!  I would like to fly!” and they fly.

But do they really?  Or do they just dream that they are able to control their dream and wake up believing that they were?  How could they know?  If they were truly dreaming the dreamlife would be given to them, and so would the liquid immersion of self in dream, like yolk floating in egg.

I tried to remember the transition once as a child.  I said to myself that I will remember the precise moment of falling asleep.  I repeated to myself “I will remember my dream.  I will remember my dream.  I will remember my dream” and there I was standing alone on a beach facing a cliff that went up to the sky that was at the same time a book.

When I remembered the dream the next morning I remembered both sides of it — going in with the determination to remember the dream, and also facing the book with a sense of wonder, and new birth, but also, not deja vu precisely, but the tendrils of a dreampast clinging to the dream present, like jellyfish tentacles, or the gelatin around frog eggs, or the trail of a piece of sodium in water, but a consistent production of past time, and not the disjoint of a remembered dream being controlled by a waking moment eager to control.

Dreams, of course, are not the only moments in our lives when we give into the irrational.  One could mention falling in love.  I remember thinking “I should fall in love — if I fail to fall in love now, maybe I am one of those cold people who will never experience love” and I remember being completely in love with the beloved and willing to give up all for her.  And yet just as I remember the moment of surrendering myself to sleep, and trying to surrender and at the same time not surrender, and I also remember the moment of dream which created its own dream reality, so was it with the love.  I can now remember the decision to give myself up to love, but also the feeling once I was in love, that this was my whole life and I couldn’t give it up without losing my self, my soul.

A paradox.  How can I both remember deciding to fall in love and remember having always been fated for this love?  How can I remember both choosing to experience the dream and standing facing that book, feeling the excitement and the terror, and the irrational thought that reading the book was not up to me but was a challenge being issued by the colossal book itself?

Dimly visible behind both decisions — to dream and to love — was the deeper heading or direction of my life, like the momentum of a huge ferry.  Before the relatively trivial issues of wake or sleep, love or not love, was the blind drive to go deeper out and deeper in, to risk myself in fascination with someone other, and to plumb myself in the realm of dreams.  Vague and massive, a dark oceanic bulk obscured by thick dawn, was this blundering about-to-be me-ness, that surfaced in these clumsy movements of will and thought.  For this drowsy behemoth there was no question of before or after, of willing the next moment or surrendering to its call.  For this blind craving creature these were simply bubbles and waves and froth he threw up and backwards in his wake.