In today’s column, Johnny Sava responds to a reader’s letter by considering the power of compassion.
Lion and tigers and bears, deep-fried and smothered in gravy – Hoods of distinction – The way the Earth stood still – Sport of kings – Fruit from the forbidden tree – The role of a lifetime.
Dear The Recalcitrant Meditator,
Recently I have begun to worry that my neighbors are operating an illegal slaughterhouse out of their apartment. Conversion vans with dirt-caked license plates can be seen entering and exiting the alley-facing opening of their garage at all hours of the day and night, and there’s a bunch of burnt-out bone saws piled up in the backyard. (Speaking from experience, there’s no way anyone can go through that many bone saws if all they’re doing is slaughtering for personal use.) Additionally, I can distinctly hear the sound of pandas in peril coming through the walls whenever I stick my head into the washing machine, a.k.a. “Daddy’s Quiet Box.” (Side note: you should know that I can recognize and imitate the sounds of over one hundred different types of animals being menaced, as represented by a really impressive library of mp3s [if I do say so myself] which you can access on my Bandcamp page, MansBestFriendDeathRattle. You don’t think I just draw faces on ears all day long, do you?) I’m torn. On the one hand, I respect the rule of law above all, and feel that if you’re going to be eating meat, you should at least have the wherewithal to kill you dinner the old-fashioned way: in hand to hand combat on the dirt floor of a hut in the woods, surrounded by the nightmare faces of all those you have wronged. On the other hand, I want to be a good neighbor and am really hoping if I keep my big mouth shut I might be able to score a cooler full of leopard patties from these awesome psychos. What do you think? Can meditation help?
Anything can happen in Chicago, huh!
Dear M. Mercy,
Okay, for once I think I know what you’re going through. It chafes me to have to admit this, but up until now my method for gifting you advice has basically involved the following: reading your emotion-choked plea; drinking straight applejack from a jar until I can feel my heart beating in my teeth; and then, having forgotten whatever the hell it was you wanted in the first place, writing the first ten things that come into my head, in no particular order. What has resulted from such a system has been, in my opinion, nothing less than a shitpile of masterpieces, and so I hesitate to change a thing. Given the dramatic reversal at hand, however – namely, the perception that I might really be able to lift you out of the darkness – ethically speaking, I have no choice but to respond from the heart.
Going on three hours now or something the person directly above me has been playing the same song over and over again. The same song. And the song in question is only about two and a half minutes long, so you can understand it’s getting to be super annoying. I know what your first thought probably is: “Johnny Sava, isn’t it the case that you live in an atomic-age townhome painted the color of weak tea in Lexington, Virginia, and that there’s no one living above you except for God in his Heaven and Moon People?” This used to be too, too true, but the Sava clan has recently packed up and vaulted out of Lexington and is now in the process of moving to Princeton, New Jersey, though not before first spending the summer in Paris, which is where we are now.
People tend to level looks of indignant scorn at you when you tell them you’ll be spending several months in Paris, but this is simply because they are mistaking the real, multi-dimensional Paris for the Paris they see depicted in romantic musicals like The Day of the Jackal – in which Audrey Hepburn plays an intrepid une inspectrice de police who must stop dapper international assassin Fred Astaire from dispatching President De Gaulle in a brutal, underground tap-dancing competition – or Last Tango in Paris, in which melancholy painter Gene Kelly infamously shoves his entire, buttered fist into his own mouth while forcing shocked gamine Leslie Caron to watch. Paris is not as romantic as all that, at least until you get to all the really romantic places and you understand why they show up in every movie that is set in Paris (or at least every American movie set in Paris).
One scenic retreat you will surely recognize is le Jardin du Luxembourg, a vast public garden dotted with fountains, immaculately groomed wedges of grass, and oodles of benches and chairs painted this one calming hue of green. Beholding this veritable fairyland on the front of a postcard or through a slow panning shot in a film you can see why so many people the world over imagine being in Paris is like having a long, cool screw on a pile of pancakes. Strolling through the gardens for real, however, is a definitively more surreal experience. You do not have to stroll for long before you become aware of the fact that all the people you see are sitting in chairs pulled up to the edges of the green spaces – never crossing over those edges into the green spaces themselves – and staring at absolutely nothing. Except for the occasional baguette fragment deposited into a mouth, nobody moves. It is like they are all waiting for something, but what? Watching this scene you get the distinct impression that everyone in Paris was peeled out of a pod fully formed that very morning, and that if you were to get close enough you would realize their human-shaped carapaces are nothing more than waxen molds painted in Breton stripes and the shades of Capri pants. One might conceive of this phenomenon as the ultimate existential punishment for Paris’ crime of being overly imagined: all the people have become extras, forced to sit and wait for a film that never stops being filmed or never starts.
Of course anyone who lives in Paris knows what these people are really doing: they’re avoiding their homes.
There are certainly many posh homes and apartments in Paris and plenty of posh people to live in them. Moreover, I’m sure there are plenty of homes and apartments in Paris that, far from being considered extravagant, can merely be considered sufficient for sustaining human life with something resembling a modicum of dignity. If you are reading this column, however, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never see dwellings in either of these categories except in photographs or on guided tours. The sort of apartment that regular schmoes like you and me are likely to score will have an interior girth roughly equivalent to masturbation coffins Japanese businessmen might be willing to pay twenty-five yen to access at a train station. For you, this is your castle. Fortunately Parisian apartments tend to be well-windowed, so you will not actually be made to feel as though the walls are closing in on you. That being said, you will probably really want to keep those windows closed. You may have gotten the impression that Paris smells like baguettes stuffed with freshly cut grass, but to quote my wife, the actual scent of Paris is more comparable to “broth and pee on a lukewarm wind.”
Moreover, the French do not pussyfoot around with inside/outside distinctions like Americans do. For example—American windows, as any Americans reading this know, sport screens in almost all circumstances. This allows the American who is standing before a window to be able to think to him or herself, “I’m inside—but I’m outside!” Or, “I’m outside—but I’m inside!” This is such a self-evident fixture of American life that you may have never considered that there might be an alternative. The French have found one. Your average French window has never had its frame darkened by even the specter of a screen, so when the window is open, the outside is really coming right the hell in, ready or not. This is fine when what’s outside wanting to get in is a cool breeze, even if alit upon said breeze is a slight “poached diaper” aroma. It is less fine when what is outside-coming-inside is a pigeon. Let’s unpack a power dynamic: when you’re in the park and there are a bunch of pigeons pecking around at loose change or buttons that have been discarded in the dirt, you are in charge. Even if there are a hundred pigeons and you are a child of ten – even if there are a million pigeons and you are a baby dressed like a pantless sailor, tearing around with nary an ability to distinguish forms on a high level to guide you – you are in charge. On the other hand, even if only a single pigeon ends up in your kitchen, it’s that pigeon that’s in charge. For the first time, no doubt, in that wretched pigeon’s wretched, wretched life. And, not surprisingly, it is not going to want to renounce its newfound authority without a fight.
It’s funny what a slight change in perspective can do. Out on the street, the particular way pigeons stroll about clearly identifies them as figures of fun, the sad, brain-damaged clowns of the avian world. When they’re walking around on the cutting board where only moments ago you were slicing leeks, however, that particular stroll starts to look more like a cocky, “kiss my ass” strut. The most important thing is not to panic. If you start flailing around, the pigeon will start flailing around, and having been granted the gift of flight by some jocular, possibly alcoholic, god, its flailing is going to be much more catastrophic than anything you could ever hope to muster. And be warned that inciting flailing is going to make you hate the pigeon even more than you already do. Because you’re going to see how its flying isn’t even flying, it really is just flailing—it’s almost as though instead of gracefully swooping through the air like any self-respecting bird the pigeon just sort of throws itself into the air from wherever it happens to be standing and then rattles its entire body like a tambourine in hopes of doing something that will move it through space and not cause it to end its life on the side of a milk truck. So if the pigeon starts flail-flying around your tiny Parisian apartment, it’s guaranteed to end up touching all your stuff, and who knows what terrible diseases have affixed themselves to its terrible little pigeon fingers and toes.
So whatever you do, do not panic, and do not give in to your hate. Have you noticed the little leather pouch near the sink that you originally assumed was a carrying case for a tea ball? That’s actually a blinding hood for pigeons. Every French home has one. You’re going to want to locate that right away, and at your first opportunity slip it over the pigeon’s head. You may want to put on your special bird-handling gloves first, however. Yes, that’s what those white cotton gloves are for, not for handling rare manuscripts, as you may have imagined. Slip on the bird-handlers, and then place the hood over the pigeon’s head. Then, firmly but gently grasping the pacified pigeon around its mid-section, raise the lid of your toilet with the toe of your loafer, and quickly drive the pigeon into the basin, taking care to detach the hood as you do so, lest you lose a really good hood straight down the shitter. Exerting pressure to keep the lid taut, press the larger of the two buttons on the flushing panel. Most Americans visiting France for the first time may be confused by the exotic presence of buttons instead of levers on les toilettes, but this is where the noble Geberits of France prove themselves to be head and shoulders above the hick American Standards or TOTOs of the United States. The multi-button system allows the toilet’s user to choose which sentence fits the crime, so to speak, carefully weighing such factors as state of mind at the time of the incident; severity of the incident; past behavior; etc. Visitors often assume the little button is for peeps, and the bigger button is for poops. This is understandable, but incorrect. The little button is for poops, and the bigger button is for pigeons. Peeps are typically done directly into the pants.
Okay, I think it’s time to take a step back. As I’m re-reading what I wrote above, I’m beginning to think this isn’t really about pigeons at all. I’m beginning to think that what this is really about is the person in the apartment above me who keeps playing the same song over and over again. I think the reason I’m finding this person’s behavior to be so galling is because this apartment complex was supposed to be full of nice, quiet, boring Parisians in a nice, quiet, boring part of Paris. I mean, yes –Paris, like any city of considerable size, is going to have a way of stretching loudly as it wakes up each morning, coughing and farting and saying, oh la la!, and moreover, I should be overjoyed we’re in this place and not the place where we were last year. From dawn to dusk in that apartment it sounded like empty paint cans were being tossed down the fire escape. Here, if you keep the windows closed, it really does keep most of the sound out, though this does a body no good if the sound you’re trying to keep out is coming from within the walls of the keep itself. The longer I sit here the more it sounds like the song is actually coming from inside my head. Maybe it stopped hours ago, and yet here I am, still riding that merry-go-round, for no good reason. Obviously this is the place where mindfulness should come in.
Here’s my opening gambit – check it out – extending compassion to my tormenter. This should be foolproof, right? Let’s go ahead and call him/her “Michel,” because that’s a boy’s name that sounds like a girl’s name, so all my bases will be covered. Here is what my proffering of compassion has so far entailed: I’ve been imagining the song in question is the song that was playing when Michel received the phone call telling Michel that Michel’s lover had been consumed by an avalanche in Switzerland. As a result, Michel feels obligated to listen to the song on a never-ending loop in a self-wounding effort to compound the agony that Michel is already feeling, which Michel knows can nevertheless never equal the agony the lover feels at being dead. There’s a crucial flaw in this method, however. Can you guess what it is? It is this: all I’m really doing is trying to satisfy my own unwholesome blood-urges by making Michel suffer, which is hardly compassion at all and certainly not making me feel any better or, for that matter, making Michel feel anything, if that is his/her real name, which I’m guessing it probably is not.
It would be something closer to compassion if I forgave Michel in my heart for the outrage of making me want to dump fire ants into my ears by deploying the following logic: Michel deserves my pity because Michel cannot help being the type of unredeemable dickhose that feels the need to listen to the same song over and over again when there are literally ten zillion songs that have been written since the beginning of ears that Michel could be listening to right now instead. And yet…and yet, all that’s really doing is placing me in a position of superiority over Michel, which is just like that pigeon that I flushed down the toilet. Man, now I’m starting to think that maybe the big button isn’t for pigeons after all. Maybe it is for poops. And maybe the poops it’s for…is me.
This is hard, isn’t it? Damn hard!
It’s pretty simple to feel compassion for a person who has been wronged by another. It’s less simple to feel compassion for a person whose stupid face you just can’t stand the sight of. Ironically, at a certain point it actually does become simple to feel compassion for said stupid-faced stupid-face, precisely because that person is being wronged, and the person that person is being wronged by is you. Once you’ve absorbed that realization, it’s probably wise to also try to feel compassion for yourself. As Montaigne wrote, “No matter what role a man may assume, he always plays his own part within it.” In the end, a person is only guilty of playing his or her part in the role s/he has assumed, though, critically, one should furthermore be made to realize that s/he can change the script at a moment’s notice. Or, for that matter, come to see how there might really be no script; not to mention no heroes, no villains, no stage, and even no theater.
I guess what I’m really getting at, M. Mercy, is this: have you ever considered that maybe the real problem here is you, and not the neighbor you have so brazenly accused of running an illegal slaughterhouse? Mike Royko spoke of the gangsterism native to the average Chicagoan as “the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.” Instead of succumbing to your people’s ingrown prejudices, try for a moment adopting the attitude of your average Parisian garden goer, something I will call the “I Will Stare at Nothing” spirit: the “I will stare at nothing before nothing can stare at me spirit.” Pull your chair to the edge of your property line and focus your attention on the scent of potatoes sizzling in freshly rendered lion fat, and away from the lion in your heart which is trying to steal your focus and consume your concentration. Meanwhile, I will work on plunging the pigeon in my non-metaphorical toilet, which I’m afraid might be halfway to Hastings by now.
I remain, as always, obediently yours,
Recordings that contributed to the writing of this entry: Charanjit Singh, Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat; Hospitality, “Argonauts.”
(1) I don’t know what the song is. All things being equal, I think I would rather know than not know. Because as it stands, all I’m hearing dripping from the ceiling is the rhythm section, sounding as though it’s being squeezed through a sponge. (I’m assuming there is a vocal track, because musically it’s got the feel of a garden variety pop song, but it’s not coming through.) If I knew what the song was I could find it online, listen to it unobscured, maybe develop a positive relationship of my own with it. In its current state, however, it might as well be the sound of my blood throbbing mercilessly through my brain.
(2) The only people in the garden who seem to have society’s permission to move around are children, and the only activity they are seemingly being allowed to engage in is pushing tiny sailboats around a shallow fountain with really long sticks. I promise you this does not reduce the general eeriness of the setting.
(3) Americans love doing this. It allows us to impose separation without separation anxiety.
(4) Also known as “the plaintiff.”
(5) This accounts for much of the telltale “grit” that collects at the bottom of carafes of tapwater at cafés.
(6) Pun distended.
(7) When will we be able to Shazam the songs we’re hearing in our heads? That’s coming, right?
(8) Wait, way too morbid? Okay. Let’s imagine that the lover was crushed underneath a chocolate avalanche. Yum yum!
(9) That’s fresh from To philosophize is to learn how to die, nerdburgers.
(10) Picasso and the Cultural Rebirth of Chicago, readers. Deal with it.