Category Archives: body

The truth and reconciliation

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My body is not one. It has shown itself now to be a collection of minor beings struggling to work together without really knowing how. I felt them begin to pull apart, these pieces of me, my own free floating awareness pitting me as an observer against my-selves. As I lay in convalescence after the harrowing break, with the black rock of my own death still cold in my hands, I ask again and again, “how did this happen?”

How and indeed why – the questions come and go like Prufrock’s ladies sometimes louder than before, sometimes softer, always there at least somewhere in the background. The science is clear even where it is ambiguous. The autoimmune disease turns my best defender against me. Now my oh-so-powerful body attacks me. It cannot tell the difference between me and my enemies. It attacks with full force like a mad dog that doesn’t know what it’s doing and can only lash out, because that is now the nature of its being.

My body is not one. A beast lies within, ready to attack at some semi-random moment when something wakes it up. The beast wasn’t always so. It was my friend in older times, defended me against the world and kept me safe, until something flipped and everything changed. A gene was switched, some of the doctors will say. Something triggered it like too much stress, spicy food, or alcohol. It feels like possession, like something outside stepped in and captured this part of me and turned it rogue, like a son who attacks his father because in his greed and hubris he cannot be who he was born to be. It feels angry within me; it has something to say, only it has no words and can only attack what it cannot understand.

My body is not one. It is not what it was. After the attack, this time, they had to cut away a big piece, and what was once complete and then quite sick is no longer there. It was cut out by carefully trained hands, that piece of my body turned against me by the beast. It was cut away to stop the harm, a piece of death arrested, excised, and placed into a bin for further study, when the doctors will try to figure out why and how. With the diseased part of me gone now, they say I’ll be able to start over. With the resection went the larger risks, some of the cancer prospect, and the places where the beast fed on my life itself.

My body is not one. It will never be one again, even when I get better. I will have to care for the beast and love it surely as one loves the rogue son – for he is mine and I cannot deny him. I must forgive the wrongs and find a new way to love myself and my-selves, believing in a kind of healing I’ve never imagined before. The doctors have cleaned up the mess and put the beast in a box. I’m being redrawn and reconnected, like the overhaul of plumbing in an old house, a renovation in flesh and blood.

My body is not one. Part of it has died, part of it is new, part is restored, part must be contained. What did the doctors see when they began the renovation? Maybe that’s not even a question they ask. They just do their best and move on, repairing harm and ending suffering. Is it up to me to see what I need to see? The doctors came back and told me that I was young even though I felt old, that I was healthy even though I felt sick, that I was already getting better even though I was racked with pain and doubt.

My body is not one. Yet all must be reconciled. It cannot just be contained. It cannot be a regime of toleration. We cannot agree to disagree, play nice, share the sandbox. We must transcend that which divides to form a new self even while the rest of our clamoring selves continue their cantankerous dialogue down beneath. I read the letters of Saint Paul to myself over and over again, on building a church of love from disparate groups and individuals who want to belong together. Saint Paul comes to us with words soothing and stern, asking us to let love be our guide, the same self-sacrificing love shown to us by the Savior – for us to enact in our own lives until we return to Him and are one again.

Can my body be one? I have to ask even though I suspect it will always be at the very least a balancing act between reality and desire. Every day will be a challenge to keep my-selves together in a common vision of who we are. It will be time and sweat and hard work even when I know something is different inside. The doctors will tell me I need to be vigilant because the beast cannot be tamed forever, even with the greatest love I can give. I can never trust fully. The beast has taken that away even though I must love my beast-child while never turning my back.

Can my body be one? Without trust there can be no reconciliation. But how can I trust the beast? Maybe that is not the right place to start: rather, I can begin by calling it what it is and not what it feels like. It’s not a beast or a rogue son. It’s a mistake, there only because it is. We can’t know how it came to me, except to know that my mother shared some of these symptoms and, in the end, succumbed to her own autoimmune demon via multiple sclerosis. She struggled so hard to know why, only I don’t think there’s a why. Illness is as much part of life as health.

What is it, if not a beast? Is it me? Could it be that simple? It may be an aberration, something most people don’t deal with, but I’m not the only one. Rare perhaps but we are many, and as I look around me perhaps not rare indeed. We are who we are, and this is part of me, as much as missing nine molars is part of me. Those teeth were never there and my mouth ends in gum lines where others have teeth. Yet I eat and have a bright smile that warms hearts and helps me say hello. It’s nothing more than who I am, a man missing a lot of molars, with a baby molar still there on my right side at 52 years. And now, a man with Crohn’s Disease and a long life ahead.

Reconciliation is never complete. It is an ongoing action, something practiced, never done, always incipient. The virtue of reconciliation is that it is always on the verge of its own demise, challenging us constantly to make it real. The daily exercise of reconciliation is a stand against entropy, casting hope into the world. Reconciliation is a pathway, a bridge from one way of life to another. Reconciliation keeps the pieces of me together and holds out the hope we need even when the disease itself will always be there, even if only in shadows.

My body may not be one. But all the pieces are mine. Reconciliation keeps us honest and gives us a chance.

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Notes and credits

The opening photograph is the author at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn following emergency surgery for a burst colon, January 27, 2016. The second photograph is flowers in my room, sent by family.

 

 

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The truth and progress, 2: Santa Teresa

Cruces_Lomas_del_Poleo

This is the second reflection on ideas about “progress” and change through novels that explore the consequences of progress for ordinary people and their everyday live.  The first considered  Patrick Chamioseau’s Texaco, and here the conversation turns to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.
―Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth

Cesárea

The Savage Detectives and 2666 are monumental novels about a search for literary ghosts in the cities and towns of northern Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. They were written by Roberto Bolaño, a Chilean who lived much of his life in exile, in Mexico and Spain, searching for ways to make words reconcile the world that is with the world of his own experience and imagination.

In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño assumes a pose akin to Chamoiseau’s in Texaco, as a thinly disguised self called Arturo Belano, whose poetic vocation reflects his directionless quest for authenticity and escape from the Latin American “Boom” generation—those writers like Octavio Paz, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, & etc. whose work won four Nobel Prizes and utterly defined the “Latin American” voice. Their monumental dominance is for Belano and his generation a straight-jacket of Latin exoticism that is nothing like the world they grew up in. Belano/Bolaño’s world is one in which global currents are washing over Latin America, wearing away what the Boom Generation created.

Sion

Cesárea Tinojero’s only known poem, “Sión”

The Savage Detectives follows Belano’s group of poets—the “Visceral Realists”—from an early adventure in the mid-1970s to find an obscure 1930s Mexican poet, Cesárea Tinajero. In the 30s, she worked for one of the generals leading the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and only wound down by the 1930s. The Mexican Revolution itself was the constituting event in Latin American history that drew a line between the United States and everything south of the Rio Grande. It made the Boom Generation possible.

By the late 1970s, long after her general died, Cesárea is presumed living in somewhere in Sonora not far from Santa Teresa, itself a thinly disguised version of Mexico’s border boomtown, Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. After rambling through the desert, they finally find her, aged and alone, in a small room in Santa Teresa. Through a local teacher who had befriended Cesárea, they learn that she had lived a very lonely, impoverished life, lately having taken to scribbling visions of the future, afraid of persecution and even death, in a scene that appears to foreshadow 2666 without being specific enough to say anything at all.

“… Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.” (The Savage Detectives, p. 634)

Belano and his cohorts will meet Cesárea herself, but before anything much happens her end meets the end of the Visceral Realists in a thudding anticlimax that explains the preceding 400 pages chronicling the group’s dissolution and dispersal around the world.

Archimboldi

2666 isn’t a sequel to The Savage Detectives, but in important ways it picks up where the earlier left off, with a crew of literary critics searching for Benno von Archimboldi, a German author whose Pynchonian mantle of self-imposed obscurity only heightens the reverence of his followers. As with Cesárea Tinojero’s oblique reference to the year 2600, Archimboldi is also referenced in The Savage Detectives, as “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” credited for the Archimboldi of 2666‘s early novel, The Endless Rose. By the time of 2666, set around the turn of the millenium, Archimboldi has had a 40-year  career in which he has published 21 novels and is mentioned frequently as a short-list candidate for the Nobel Prize. Like most of their colleagues, Archimboldi scholars are a fanatical lot and would go to the ends of the earth to find their master—which leads them to Santa Teresa a quarter-century after Arturo Belano and the Visceral Realists arrived there to find their master.

What is different between the two novels is the Mexico they depict. Where The Savage Detectives chronicles a generation’s futile struggle against the grandiose and Nobel-studded world of their literary forbears, 2666 completes that story by portraying a Mexico that is at once devouring itself with it’s own misogyny and violence while at the same time it is irretrievably caught in a tide of globalization, which abets the local violence and even explains it as its own pathology. Like Texaco, 2666 is a novel about a city that stands for a larger story about the price of progress.

If the apogee of the Mexican revolution, in literary terms, is Octavio Paz’s Nobel Prize, then the nadir, in human terms, is the killing of up to 400 young women—femicidios—in Ciudad Juarez between 1993 and 2004. These murders are historical core of 2666, just like slavery and urban modernization are the historical core of Texaco. Thumbnail sketches of the murders in the fictionalized Juarez of Santa Teresa, hundreds of them, are meted out in clinical detail for over 280 pages in the longest of the novel’s five sections, “The Part About the Crimes.” Plot points filter in and out of an utter fog of forensic reportage like familiar faces wandering into a dream, trying desperately to drag it into the waking world. The scourge of violence becomes banal and then fades into normalcy. “The Part About the Crimes” is the reader’s own exile from everything she knows, the reader as Aeneas in Hades seeing a prophetic vision of dystopian globalization that reverses the familiar story of progress, replacing civil society and the rule of law with a world descending into inexplicable, and inexplicably unjust, viciousness.

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In the last section of the book, “The Part About Archimboldi,” we finally learn who this writer is in an epic tale spanning the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, the emergence of computer technology, and the femicidios of Santa Teresa. In the end, it’s the story of how the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, a Latin American novel that was written in Spain and unmoored itself from Mexico with a cast of characters from the United States, Spain, England, France, Germany, Russia, Chile, Romania, Italy, Mexico, and other places. Set on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, in an international metropolis that reflects the two countries’ grand fraternal struggle for coexistence, 2666 continuously finds its border-crushing narrative crashing against the invisible wall between these two countries. Like Chamoiseau, Bolaño in The Savage Detectives and 2666 reimagines the world he has lived in and feeds it back to us in overlapping waves of murder mysteries, vision quests, and pilgrimmages. These books are the chronicle of Bolaño’s life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

Photographs and images:  The first photo is of crosses placed on Lomas del Poleo Planta Alta, Ciudad Juárez, in the place where the bodies of eight murdered women were discovered in 1996. It is from the Wikimedia Commons. The photocopy of Cesárea Tinajero’s poem, “Sión,” from p. 398 of The Savage Detectives, is a photocopy taken by Tom Sparks and posted on his blog, WFTM.  The air photo of Ciudad Juarez’s sprawl across the countryside up to the mountains was taken from an article in El País online, ¿Porqué Ciudad Juárez?

Five Latin American writers would win the Nobel Prize between 1945 and 2010:  Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945), Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1971), Miguel Ángel Asturias (Guatemala, 1967), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia, 1982), Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1990), and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 2010). These writers and many others equally as notable, including Jorge Luis Borges, Júlio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, to name a few, not only created a globally recognized “Latin American Literaure” but they also exercised a palpable influence on post-World War II literature in general.  García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is recognized as the overarching masterwork of the era, bringing the notion of “magical realism” to fore in world literature, while Cortázar’s Rayuela has become a post-modern touchstone that has far eclipsed the Boom Generation.

From 1993 onward, around 400 women have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, a city of about 1.5 million people just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Most of the victims of the femicidios were young and suffered violent deaths that included rape and torture.  Few of the murders were solved.  Those who could fled the violence (an estimated 700,000 people leaving the area in the late 1990s-early 2000s) while those who couldn’t continued to work in the maquiladora factories created to supply U.S. companies with cheap production based almost entirely on the miserly wages paid to the Mexican workers—mainly women—who have flocked to the border for work.  The violence has ebbed and flowed, but it nonetheless continues to the present day and has spawned movements and organized reactions.

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E/F – The glass of life

God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good (Genesis 1:31).

Life is full of contradiction, and so are attempts to understand where life came from, why we are here, and what will become of us.

An old English proverb proclaims:  There but for the grace of God go I. The proverb sums up the randomness of the universe—the order-out-of-chaos, the utter, unexplained, and unaccounted for contingency of life itself—as a matter of Divine will.

Some have interpreted this idea darkly, as for example the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, whose God is angry and holds sinners over the pit of hell “much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire.”  For Edwards, only God’s “pleasure” or “arbitrary will” stood in the way of eternal suffering, and the sinner “hang[s] by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it …”  Lions and tigers and bears seem meek by comparison—oh my.

For those who dwell on the goodness of the Earth, however, life as a gift of grace is a liberating thought, providing the freedom to leave other-worldly issues alone.  Instead, one’s gaze turns to the things that matter in this world, and in this moment a new kind of human freedom is born.  The world beyond this one is indeed arbitrary and unknowable, but in this world what we do matters.  Here we, not God, are responsible.

This notion of contingency, of the arbitrary nature of causality in the universe, isn’t a terribly God-bound thought.  The grace of God in the proverb can be understood in quite godless terms as the general force of randomness as it functions in the entropy of the universe.  Either way, life is contingent on a lot of things that are completely out of our control, and in that contingency, ironically, good and evil are placed in human hands and human hands alone.

The pitcher and its window sill

A couple months ago, I had a party.  I’d moved into a new apartment and wanted to share the space with some friends.  We prepared for the party all day, cleaning house and eventually going out to buy some good cheese, wine, bread, the makings of spinach salad, and such.  Along the way, my girlfriend bought a dozen yellow roses.

After the party, once the roses had dried, I took the petals from the stems and placed them in a bowl.  I had hoped they would smell like roses and I would crush them to place them in a bowl as potpourri.  Alas, they never smelled so good, but the yellow petals were very pretty and I put them in the pitcher, which sits on the window sill and now adds a dash of yellow to the room.

On this window sill in my living room, I keep a number of things.  There is a ceramic covered bowl that I bought in 1989 the first time I ever went to the Ann Arbor Art Fair.  It was made by Rob Wiedmaier, who worked out of St. Joseph, Missouri.  Next to that is a little wooden toy sailboat that my son made from a kit he received in the gift bag at another boy’s birthday party.  And then there are three photographs of my family.

Buddy-Buddy, Grandpa #1

In the first photograph, we have the Krupas, from about 1941 or so.  The patriach, great-grandpa Krupa, stands in the center.  His three children are there—Joe, Johnny, and Annie.  Joe was my grandfather, who my brother and I called “Buddy-Buddy,” because he that’s what he was, our buddy.  Next to great-grandpa Krupa is my grandmother, Joe’s wife, Mary Niznik.  She’s is holding my mother, Mary, who is about one year old in this photo, looking bright with her Shirley Temple curls.  These were good Slovak people from the hills of the Monongahela Valley in western Pennsylvania.

Buddy-Buddy was a steelworker. After he died in 1969, my grandmother came to live with us, and for the next seven years, she was the most wonderful storyteller, babysitter, friend, and ally my brother and I ever had.  She made stuffed cabbage roles, she ground her own meat, and she made the Easter Bread every year, just like in the old country, which she called “Austria-Hungary.”  I took Joseph as my confirmation name in the memory of my Buddy-Buddy.  My brother named his son Joseph.

Grumpy, Grandpa #2

The next photo over is of my other grandfather, Ernest John Guidry, III.  In the photo he is old, in his mid-70s, sitting in his back yard decked out for Mardi Gras.  My brother and I never called him “grandpa.”  We always called him “Grumpy,” a nickname that my mother gave him because he was always so jolly and full of life.  He had 17 grandchildren, and he called each and every one of us “Peanut.”  When this photo was taken, he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  He died within a year or two of the diagnosis, thankfully, we all felt.

The good fight

In the final photo, half hidden behind the rest on the window sill, are my mother and father.  They were photographed in the den/living room of their house in River Ridge, Louisiana, the house where I grew up.  I remember the first time I saw the place.  It was in 1973, late summer. Mom took my brother and I there—we were all of 8 and 9—and there wasn’t much of a house.  Just a slab of concrete on a sand lot with lots of trees all around.  There were only four houses on the street.  A couple months later, there was a house on our slab, and we moved.  Such it was in the 70s.  My father still lives there.

The photo is from the better days, before the multiple sclerosis put mom in a wheelchair and changed her body and all of our lives in ways that are all but impossible to describe.  She passed away on June 27, 2007, and for her funeral mass, she had the following read from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, which I forever think of when I think of her—

I for my part am already being poured out like a libation.  The time of my dissolution is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. —2 Timothy 4:6-7

Consider the lilies

Such is life, with no reason to be and no reason to end, but every reason for the living to live.  Do not ask, but live.  Run the race you are given.  Be simple and don’t strive.  Be like the flowers of the field.

lilies

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. —Luke 12:27

Notes and Credits (Grandpa #3)

The photographs of the pitcher, the window sill, and the lily were taken by author.  The window sill was photographed as it appears in my living room.  Behind it, through the window, is the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds in Brooklyn, which has been the photographic subject of a few postings so far.

The lily grows in my apartment building’s garden next to the sidewalk.  The garden isn’t kept or tended very well.  It mainly just grows there, though I do see Bart’s mother, the landlord, sweeping and cleaning and watering from time to time.  I saw the flower when returning home from a run in the park with my son.

Of all the people in the photographs, only one is still alive, my father.  He is 70 years-old now, in quite robust health, and determined to reach 100.  His odds are better than average.  His father, who was pictured as described, died at 77, quite young for our family.  My father’s mother died at 91.  His grandmother, EJ’s mother, died at 101 or 102.  The rest of our aunts and uncles are in their 80s and 90s.  My odds, on the other hand, are something of a split decision, for my mother’s side of the family—the Krupas and Nizniks—mainly seem to die in their 50s and 60s.  Mom was 67 when she died, like her mother, who made the cabbage rolls and the Easter Bread.  Buddy-Buddy was about 58 when he passed on.  There but for the grace of God go any one of us, on any given day, at any given age.

For the record, my son and his cousins call my father “Grandpa,” because that’s what he is.

The Family Krupa, c. 1941

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The truth and money

The truth is that money is often a divisive influence in our lives.  We keep our bank balances secret because we worry that being candid about our finances will expose us to judgment or ridicule—or worse, to accusations of greed or immorality.  And this worry is not unfounded.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007), p. xi

Brooklyn Reading Works:
The Truth and Money

On April 15, 2010, the Brooklyn Reading Works will present its monthly writers’ program on “tax day.”  This happy accident, observed last summer in a casual conversation over coffee with Louise Crawford, resulted in the idea for a panel called “The Truth and Money,” a reading and Q & A with three authors whose work has taken on money in some significant way.

Our three panelists are:

Elissa Schappell, a Park Slope writer, the editor of “Hot Type” (the books column) for Vanity Fair, and Editor-at-large of the literary magazine Tin House. With Jenny Offill, Schappell edited Money Changes Everything, in which twenty-two writers reflect on the troublesome and joyful things that go along with acquiring, having, spending, and lacking money.

Jennifer Michael Hecht, a best-selling writer and poet whose work crosses fields of history, philosophy, and religious studies.  In The Happiness Myth, she looks at what’s not making us happy today, why we thought it would, and what these things really do for us instead.  Money—like so many things, it turns out—solves one problem only to beget others, to the extent that we spend a great deal of money today trying to replace the things that, in Hecht’s formulation, “money stole from us.”

Jason Kersten, a Park Slope writer who lives 200 feet from our venue and whose award-winning journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, and Maxim.  In The Art of Making Money, Kersten traces the riveting, rollicking, roller coaster journey of a young man from Chicago who escaped poverty, for a while at least, after being apprenticed into counterfeiting by an Old World Master.

Please join us for the event at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, 2010, at the Old Stone House in Washington Park, which is located on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, between 3rd and 4th Streets, behind the playground.

Read about all the Brooklyn Reading Works events at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn and the BRW website.  For info on the Old Stone House and its role in the Battle of Brooklyn (1776) and contemporary life in Park Slope, go here.

Many thanks from all of us at Truth and Rocket Science to Louise Crawford, of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, for making this possible.

Money, It’s a Gas

The subtitle on the cover of Elissa Schappell’s book says everything you need to know about the stories within:  Twenty-two writers tackle the last taboo with tales of sudden windfalls, staggering debts, and other surprising turns of fortune. “The last taboo” is how Schappell and her co-editor, Jenny Offill, characterize our behavior when it comes to money, because nobody really wants to talk about it.

People are secretive and embarrassed—for having too little, or too much, or something to hide about the reasons either way.  In a country where everyone seems to have a story of how they, or their parents or grandparents, used to be poor, any personal narrative but “hard work” is out of the question.  Even hardened criminals revel in detailing the blood, sweat, and tears that go into their “work.”  No one, it seems, can sit back and say with no embellishment or apology, “I got lucky, that’s all.”  Money is the measure of what we deserve, and in our society what we deserve is in some sense who we are.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht seeks to disentangle why things that are supposed to make us happy frequently don’t.  To the notion that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” she shows that it does, to an extent.  For most of human history (and pre-history), people have lived in conditions of terrible, frightening, life-threatening scarcity that money in no small part has eradicated for all but a very small fraction of Americans.  (In line with Schappell’s notion of money-taboo, I now feel the urge to apologize and state something statistical about hardship and inequality in America, but I won’t.  We deserve ourselves and all of our money issues.)  Hecht writes,

“We need to remember that most people through history have been racked by work that was bloody-knuckled drudgery, the periodic desperate hunger of their children, and for all but the wealthiest, the additional threat of violent animals.  Nowadays a lot of what we use money for is a symbolic acting-out of these triumphs.”

Once out of poverty, in other words, what we do with money—or more precisely the things we feel when using money—have a lot to do with ancient urges and inner conflicts that endure in our minds, bodies, and culture across time and without, so it seems, our self-conscious awareness of them.  Money does buy happiness, up to the point we’re out of poverty, and then the real problems begin.

Like the craving for fat and things that are sweet, the urges we satisfy with money are deeply embedded in our being, fundamental to the way we evolved in the most far-away places and times.  It’s all fine and easy to understand or forgive, but we all know what happens when you eat too many doughnuts.

Doughnuts to Dollars

Yet money is not like a doughnut.  This we all know—money isn’t some thing, it’s just some non-thing you use to get doughnuts or whatever else you think you need.  The economists’ word for this quality is fungible.  Adam Smith introduced money in his great book on wealth by reviewing the things that societies have used for exchange measures over time, including cattle, sheep, salt, shells, leather hides, dried codfish, tobacco, sugar, and even “nails” in a village in Scotland that Smith knew of.  All this was terribly inconvenient, and Smith noted that the use of precious metal as a stand-in for things of value constituted a considerable advance—

“If, on the contrary, instead of sheep or oxen, he had metals to give in exchange for it, he could easily proportion the quantity of the metal to the precise quantity of the commodity which he had immediate occasion for.”

Money in this sense becomes nothing but a means of measurement, and it would be perfect indeed if money’s effects on the world ended there, but we all know that they don’t.

Money—as Elissa Schappell and Jenny Offill, Cyndi Lauper and conventional wisdom tell us—changes everything.  Money’s magical qualities go well beyond simple notions like greed.  Money’s powers are existential, transformative, and really weird.  Money makes us into things we are not.  Karl Marx was pretty blunt about this—

“Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers … what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality.  I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women.  Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money.  I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.  Therefore I am not lame.  I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor.  Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good.  Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest:  I am therefore presumed honest.  I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid?”

Marx may have fallen short as an economist, but then again so do most official economists.  In terms of money’s most basic ontological properties, however, it’s worth noting that he got money right.

The Glow

In the story of master counterfeiter Art Williams, Jason Kersten tells one such story of how money changes people, their values, and the truths that bind them together.  Art’s counterfeit was of an extraordinarily high quality, and its effect on people was fascinating to behold.  Art called it The Glow—“They would get this look on their face … a look of wonder, almost like they were on drugs.  It was like they were imagining the possibilities of what it could do for them, and they wanted more.”

Like the anonymous subjects of history in Hecht’s writing (note:  that’s us), Art wanted something that money, or the lack of it, had apparently stolen from his life.  Art’s “pursuit had very little to do with money, and the roots of his downfall lay in something impossible to replicate or put a value on.  As he would say himself, ‘I never got caught because of money.  I got caught because of love.’”

So where does money get us?  It’s easy to tell stories of money and doom, but we all know that without enough of it we’d be unable to do anything we need to do, let alone the supposedly unnecessary things that seem to make up for the drudgery of a life built upon doing the things we need to do.  Is the grubbiness of money as it comes off in the Pink Floyd song all there is to it?  Or is there more?

Join us on April 15, after affirming the give-away of twenty-eight percent (for most of us) of your annual harvest.

Questions:  jguidry.7@gmail.com or 212.729.7209.

Credits and Notes

Many thanks to Louise Crawford for inviting me to curate the Tax Day BRW panel, through the Truth and Rocket Science blog.  A sincere debt of gratitude, not to mention late fees, is owed to the Brooklyn Public Library, for enabling my research and inquiry into this topic.  The BPL’s copies are indeed those photographed on my dining room table to lead the blog post.

Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York:  Doubleday, 2007).

Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper One, 2007), p. 129.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, in Robert L. Heilbroner, ed., The Essential Adam Smith (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 173.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, editor, The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 103.

Jason Kersten, The Art of Making Money (New York:  Gotham Books, 2009), p. 152 (first quotation) and p. 4 (second quotation).

Photo Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetary, London, taken by the author in January, 1994, while on layover on the way to South Africa and its historical elections later that year.

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The truth and amoebas

The mighty amoeba

Your body isn’t your own,
exposed for all it really is:
permeable, full of holes,
part of the world.
A floating thing tossed and spit
on tumbling water not always clear,
you become home to others,
little animals here
at play in the world.
You could be a tree, or grass, under
tiny feet that make no sound of their own,
their steps heard in quickened heartbeats
and restless groans
that shake the world.
You’re full of holes that leave
you open, a window lost of glass,
panes rattling, short of breath,
waiting, waiting, hoping to pass
this sense of a world
stumbling moments from death,
moments from life.

____________

The name of the poem is Sickness.  I wrote it in Belém in February of 1993, as I was coping with the onset of amoebic dysentery.  It was rather a rough time, and this, the worst and latest in a cascade of different ailments since my arrival in Brazil the previous November.  I was adjusting to my new home, I told myself, but I began to re-conceive my relationship to the world.  Except for a bout of the flu at age 9 and a one-day bug at age 13, I’d never been seriously ill in my life.  When I met the amoebas, my body-as-fortress gave way to a new understanding of myself as a being in the world, no different really than a bug, participating in the world along with all the other creatures of existence, open to all those creatures, part of the landscape.  In the world – the amoebas helped me understand Heidegger and Sartre.

We’re all part of the landscape here, guests of each other, parts of each other.  Somewhere in the human genome, shot through my body and yours, there is DNA that we inherited from a common of ancestor with amoebas.  According to Richard Dawkins in his lovely The Ancestor’s Tale, our most recent common ancestor (MRCA in biospeak) would have existed between about 1.3 and 2 billion years ago.  This being, some kind of single-celled thing, would have eventually given rise to amoeba and other protozoans, in one evolutionary path, and the things that became plants and animals on another path.

Most recent common ancestor, collapsed tree

All creation is locked in struggle for the limited energy of this world.  This struggle produces rainforests when so many beings stretch to outdo others in an effort to trap the sun.  The struggle produces abundance as well as scarcity, cooperation as often as annhiliation, and a long-standing collaboration between us humans and the hoards of friendly bacteria (and even some amoeba) that live inside our bodies and help us be “human,” as it were.

Notes and Credits

A really interesting article about amoebas can be found here, by Wim van Egmond, and it includes really great photos of amoebas in action.  The photo of an amoeba at the beginning of this posting is taken from the site, Helpful Health Tips, which discusses the causes and treatments for amoebic dysentery.  More detail on the different kinds of amoebas can be found in this piece on Innvista.  Getting past dysentery meant mountains of Flagyl and a lot of examinations and tests, not only in Brazil but also after I got back to the US in 1993 and in 1994.  I never was the same again, but then again, were we ever?

When I was looking around the web for amoeba-related sites, photos, and such, I came across this company, Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC, and it’s blog.  It has nothing to do with this post specifically, except that it’s a very cool name for a company, and especially suggestive for a software firm.  Our computers and their software are, like our bodies, permeable, full of holes,
part of the world
.  We’ve made information systems in our image, both on purpose and by accident, just as it was presumed by some we ourselves were made.

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Old

bldg-salvador-alt1

Rust red water seeps from the walls.

It comes out between
dirty white tiles that
cling to the surface by only the
faintest memory of
glue or caulking.

At this point,
cleaning could do great
damage, for the whole thing is
held together by
piles of time itself.
This is no dilemma.

It’s what happens when things get old.

bldgs-belem-alt-2

Notes and Credits

Photos:  I took these photos in Brazil.  The first is from 1998, a delapidated building in the old quarter of Salvador, Bahia, the capital of the Brazilian colony from its founding in 1549 to 1763 (when the capital was moved to Rio de Janeiro).  The second is from 1993, in downtown Belém along the waterfront on the the Bahia de Guarajá at the mouth of the Amazon River.  The façade stood like this for at least five more years, for I know it was that way in 1998.  I can’t recall if this façade was ever torn down or refurbished as the front to a new building.  Memory fails me now (see the poem).

The poem:  I just moved to a new apartment, new to me, in an old building.  We’re dealing with a few old building issues as I try to get settled amid the boxes upon boxes.  My friend Amy calls this a “liminal period,” and she is right.  Everything is up for grabs.  I could throw things away.  I could re-evaluate the value of things and keep them.  I could completely rearrange my material surroundings and invent something different.

I moved myself with four of my friends, all dads to friends of my son.  We moved me on Sunday.  We felt a little older on Monday.  At the same time, I am reading Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters and Erica Wagner’s Ariel’s Gift as I prepare to finish off the next post on Brasília.  In my quiet moments, I can’t help but think in short lines of verse and hear them, over and over, in the silent spaces between my thoughts and actions.

The liminal experience of moving is not fun.  It unearths too much.  Our dust is comfortable, even if we pretend to vacuum it away every week.  Unsettling everything creates a dilemma:  deal with it or shut it away as quickly as possible.  The good thing about creating this posting is that it made me dig through old photographs (I knew exactly the ones I needed, and I knew exactly where the dusty boxes and albums containing them were).  Some old photos aren’t easy to look at.  “Too many lovers,” to quote the title of a song written by my old bandmate and best friend P.H. Fred.  Others are good to find, bringing on moments of reverie that soften the blows of age and loss, reminding one of a life lived well, and pointing forward in hope, for we will continue to live well.

Dedication:  To old people everywhere.  May their wisdom remain with us.

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The truth and change, 3b: From Gilgamesh to Pharma

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

This is the concluding post in the series, The truth and change. As part 3b, it offers a final alternative future.  In 3a, I looked at how technology is bringing out the futures within our minds and imaginations.  The virtual world is deeply connected to the organic world, and the “crossover” realm may well be the real space in which we do live.

The present posting, 3b, picks up where 3a left off – wondering about the potential for change in the essential emotional experience of being human.  This leads to a Huxleyesque future of chemical alterations and experiential morphing.

From Gilgamesh to Pharma

Gilgamesh, the God-King of Uruk, is the oldest surviving literary protagonist in human history.  He was a real man, who built the walls of his famous town, after which the modern nation of Iraq is named.  His story was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has inspired writers, readers and listeners alike for over 4,700 years.

Preserved on cuniform tablets, the Epic tells how Gilgamesh grieved the loss of his friend Enkidu.  In his sorrow and listlessness Gilgamesh became consumed with death and set out on a quest for immortality.  Gilgamesh’s inner turmoil at this point is no different than any of us will have over the death of a loved one.

Some years later, but still long ago – 2,300 years ago to be more precise – the Hebrew prophet Qoheleth wrote that there would be nothing new under the sun, and about 2,267  years later The Beatles got a number 1 hit with the same message.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game …

If there’s nothing we can do that can’t be done, then what is there?  Do the changes that have occurred in the world really matter when it comes to the fundamental experience of what it means to be human?  The issue is not about change in the world, or change in the nature of social organization, or the changes we can effect on the world.  It’s about who we are inside:

What about being human has ever changed in some undeniably essential way?

This question doesn’t deny the reality of change.  Societies are different.  Mores and belief systems change over time.  That some technological changes have made life better for some people is absolutely true.  Some illnesses and conditions no longer make life miserable for people.  Basic everyday machines like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators have liberated countless numbers of people from demeaning and exhausting chores, even while they take up new chores for new reasons.

The undeniably essential experiences I am thinking of, however, belong to other moments in our lives.  They are moments of being.  They are fundamental.  They are emotional.  They are constitutional.  They are moments critical of passage:  birth, love, marriage, death, loss, success, envy, anger.  In these kinds of moments, has what it means to be human really changed all that much?

The answer is yes, maybe, sort of.  These are emotional moments, and emotions are not purely given, because we can tinker with them.  A change in scenery is sometimes enough to change one’s emotional state.  Want to feel better?  Find the sun.  Get some air.  Climb a hill.  Have a drink.  It is in the last instance that we people began to find real power over our emotions.

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

We’ve been tinkering with chemical alterations to emotions for millions of years, well before Gilgamesh.  This may not even be unique to the human species; chimps use chemicals, too. People, however, have a way of taking things to extremes, as any history of the species will demonstrate.  There’s a cost to chemical happiness in terms of addictions.  Some chemicals even change who we are and give rise to social ills, such that most societies ban certain forms of chemicals.

What gets banned and what doesn’t – or as Jennifer Michael Hecht poses the issue, what makes a good drug bad – is really an outcome of cultural power politics (though other issues are also involved).  From the late 1800s, upper middle class, liberal, Americans of Northern European descent acted out their concern for the disruptive behaviors of less-welcome immigrants (Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews) and African Americans by banding together to ban alcohol, which they did successfully from 1920 to 1933.  For the last 40 years, “drugs”gained a connotation of “mind altering experience” that became associated in our society with illegality, rebellion, and tragedy, but that’s nothing new either.

What is different today is the industrialization and institutionalization of mass drug consumption designed to create an emotional social fabric that breeds order, productivity, and “happiness” (not “high,” but “happy” and “productive”).  These are the legal drugs that big, powerful companies want us to take under the guise of “freedom,” the kinds of drugs that appeal to people who believe there’s something fundamentally different between the urge to eat Xanax as opposed to psilocybin mushrooms.

In this scenario, prescription drugs are the real gadgets making the future happen, and “health care reform” is the Trojan Horse that Big Pharma will ride into the future (and into our minds and bodies), a “PhRMA payoff” in the words of journalist Matt Taibbi.  The great gorging that the drug companies will continue to enjoy will fuel research and development into drugs that can normalize every possible quirk, peak, and valley of human experience.

This has been at least a century in the making:  from snake oil, to heroin (created by Bayer in 1898 as a cough remedy), to Hadacol, to the array of drugs advertised directly to you on television but which you need to make a doctor’s appointment to demand.  Whether there’s a government option for insurance in the reform won’t change this:  belief in pill-popping is one thing that everyone agrees on.

The pills we have for depression, anxiety, weak erections, high cholesterol, urine flow, restless leg, bacterial infections, low sex drive, menstruation, motherhood, and every other imaginable “malady” (a word chosen advisedly here) are what the future is about – and it’s not about change.

The future according to Pharma is about muting our experiences so that change doesn’t matter.

The original, brilliant video for “Ashes to Ashes” can be seen here (it can’t be embedded).

Epilogue

I wrote this to explore an alternative future, not to predict it.  The creative spaces opened up by the Internet and virtual lives (The truth and change, 3a) are far more interesting and preferable to me.

When it comes to the issues in this posting, there are a lot of grassroots ways to challenge the way that health reform is going on.  Changes in diet and lifestyle practices can prevent a great many problems that are currently medicated out of us.  Organizations like the Economic Policy Institute provide informative coverage of the issues with data that make sense.

A stern willingness to explore the nature of illness and suffering is another way to challenge the future:  we all get sick and must live with it.  We’ll all die.  Why not die with dignity and leave on one’s own terms?  There will be sadness as surely as there will be joy, and the latter is only made deeper and richer by contrast to our experience of the former.

Notes and Credits

The songs of David Bowie have guided my thinking along the way through these four posts on “The truth and change.”  At every turn I found another one to make me think even more deeply about these topics, forcing my mind to link further and further afield into the other areas I was reading about now or had some knowledge of in a past life.

The photo of Walgreen’s at the head of the post was taken by Monique S. Guidry.  It’s at 3004 North St, Nacogdoches, TX 75965-2858.  The photo of the Prospect Gardens Pharmacy, at 89 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, was taken by the author.  That pharmacy is a nice little store in the gentrifying Park Slope neighborhood, subject of recent contretemps among the Park Slope literary and blogging community. The New York Times ran an interesting story about Amy Sohn’s novel, Prospect Park West and yet another possible TV series to shoot here (what happened to Darren Starr’s?). Local blogger Louise Crawford ran two versions of a review, one on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” and the other in the Brooklyn Paper, where she also writes the “Smartmom” column.  Fucked in Park Slope absolutely loved the book.

In The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper Collins, 2007), Jennifer Michael Hecht looks at the relationship between drugs and happiness, beginning with a chapter entitled “What Makes a Good Drug Bad.”  Along the way (pp. 78-79), she tells the story of Bayer’s invention and marketing of Heroin against the backdrop of an inquiry into what we really want out of drugs in our society.  The book is an unrelenting look at things that are supposed to make us “happy” and how misplaced our ideas about “happiness” today might be.  She explores her subject across time and cultures to make a pretty good case that happiness isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be.

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