In today’s column, Jonny Sava advises a reader to appreciate “the extraordinary possibilities for some genuine satisfaction in the commonplace facts of our bodily mortality.”
The loneliness of the long-distance gunner – Nice scream, astronaut – Cuplet – Supermarket seep
Nero’s expedition – After the brawl – No, the wheel was never invented.
Dear The Recalcitrant Meditator,
Recently, I’ve been having this freaky, recurring dream. In the dream, I am a middle-aged man, a little older than I actually am today, when awake. Furthermore, my father is not who my father is in my waking life—i.e., Butch Mercy, renowned inventor of Goat Glue™, the only glue that works on goats—but instead, an international banker obsessed with downhill skiing. A real duke of hazards, this dream-father disappears while skiing in the Swiss Alps, while my dream-self is still a child. He is presumed dead, his body never recovered. Perhaps due to some psychic rupture this event provokes, my dream-self grows to become obsessed with skiing as well, and, now forty years old or thereabouts, takes constant trips to the Swiss Alps, as though in an attempt to retrace my lost father’s final moments. While skiing on one of these trips, I take a tumble. Getting up to collect the skis which had flown clear of my body during the fall, I realize I am atop a giant shelf of ice, with only a scant few inches of snow covering it. Though I don’t know at first why I’m doing it, I find myself clearing the snow away from the ice directly beneath me. A moment later I am horrified to find myself staring directly into the eyes of my own father, encased in ice just a few inches from the surface. I put together that he must have been swallowed up by an avalanche, decades ago, and since then has been perfectly preserved in a kind of translucent tomb by the region’s perpetual sub-zero temperatures. The strangest and most lurid part of it, however, is when I realize I am looking at my father’s body, younger than I am now. What do you make of this screamer? Do you think this means I’m terrified of growing old? Is it possible what I’m describing is actually just an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Can meditation help?
Dear M. Mercy,
Let’s talk about music.
One of the weirdest rock shows I ever went to was put on by the Eels, live at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Massachusetts, on June 29, 2005.
For those of you familiar with the oeuvre of the Eels, you may recall that this was the “Eels with Strings” tour. For those of you who actually experienced a stop on this tour, you will know it as the one in which chief Eel, E (a.k.a. Mark Oliver Everett), spent the better part of the show positioned inertly in front of a microphone, clad in cheap suit and dark glasses, leaning on a cane and smoking a cigar. He looked like what you might imagine Charles Bukowski looks like if you don’t know what Charles Bukowski looks like.
His backing band consisted of a string quartet, a musical saw, prepared tuba, and a rubber boot filled with pumpkin seeds. Or something like that. Given the frisky jangle distinguishing most of the Eels’ recorded output, these arrangements had a similar effect to, say, hearing Anthrax’s Fistful of Metal rendered by an organ grinder. E sang with his trademark panting, emo snarl, however, and between songs would shuffle over to a stand-up ashtray, off-load a fat cylinder of ash from the end of his cigar, and mumble a rejoinder to something no one had said. Unfortunately, I was not writing these down, but one has stuck with me.
“Rock and roll,” he wheezed, rhetorically. “That’s a young man’s game.”
He was 42.
Maybe it’s because I just recently turned 35, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this declaration of principles by E lately. I’ve been thinking about it in these terms: while rock and roll may, in fact, be a young man’s game, mindfulness—well, that’s an old man’s game, to be sure.
Obviously I’m not claiming that a person cannot practice mindfulness perfectly well while young. It’s just that, when one is in the first flush of youth, mindfulness is but one arrow in an already overflowing quiver. Take mindful eating. It’s easy enough to make eating a plum take forty-five minutes if you’ve got youth on your side—you’ve got more than enough energy to exert the necessary force of concentration. (You may also be stoned. Being stoned is hugely helpful in stretching out plum time.) Moreover, unlike their elderly counterparts—for whom plum consumption of any duration is likely to be exhausting enough to require a nap and then a stiff drink upon waking—a youth can turn right around and eat an entire can of Beefaroni dumped onto a Tombstone pizza in under two minutes. He’ll call it magic spaghetti. And both feedingswill result in the exact same amount of transcendence. Hell, you practically can’t help but be transcendent when you’re young.
As one moves out of the phase in which “meals in a can” can reasonably be considered a sauce for whatever entrée has been ladled into the shoebox you happen to be using as a bowl, however, one naturally begins tending towards mindfulness, whether one likes it or not. And it’s not just because as you age, you become desperate for any excuse to sit on your ass for tens of minutes at a time and have somebody tell you that doing so might actually be good for you. (Remember, this is what tricked you into getting involved with the “all jelly diet” and the “low level radiation” workout program. No, it’s rather a case of becoming much more appreciative of your body. Not so much because of what it can do, but rather because of what it could do, or could cease to do, at any moment.
At a certain point your body becomes a kind of stalker—specifically, the kind who sends you grainy photographs of the audio tapes upon which you’ve admitted to committing heinous crimes, but never actually turns those tapes over to the police. Or even demands a ransom. It just likes you to know that it knows, and that, moreover, it holds all the cards. This explains why you might be minding your own business one fine day, shopping for mops at the Rite-Aid, and suddenly you pee yourself, but only a little. Like, I’m talking about what probably amounts to an 1/8 teaspoon of pee. But let’s be honest, unless you had already been planning to pee, or were currently in the midst of peeing, even a single drop of pee passing to the outside places from the inside ones is as alarming as hell. And so naturally you freeze up, right there in the middle of the mop aisle, and you think, “What happens next?” And then, nothing happens next. But you know. And your body knows that you know. And that’s all that matters.
You appreciate your body more when you fear its awesome power. You come to respect the fear it is able to instill in you. You begin rubbing it with oils you order from the internet and keeping the insides of its ears really clean and brushing its teeth for way longer than you used to or probably even need to, as though what you’re actually doing is nervously massaging the gun hand of a psycho and whispering, “Easy, pal, easy,” as it considers its next move.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Geezy creezy, Jonny Sava, you’re sure right that my body scares the shit out of me now, but it’s not as though we were the best of buddies when I was a teenager, either. Listen—I had so much acne it looked like I was wearing a beard of bees. Why would you presume that it’s only now that I should be fearing and loathing my body?”
I hear you, citizen, I hear you. You might certainly have thought your body was no great shakes even when it was hot off the press and utterly invulnerable, and yet I would bet that for many of us back in the day, our animosity was focused on surface phenomena: erections while standing in line to check out books at the library; erections while standing in line to receive communion at mass; erections while performing the most strenuous sections of the president’s physical fitness challenge; butt sweat during dodgeball; etc. In other words, when you’re young, your body may be a beast, but it is a beast that you are riding. Granted, it may be ugly and hairy and snort up a storm, but you can kick it all you want and it’ll still go just as fast as you please. You can deny it water and feed it tin cans and tops and it will neither stop, nor stop up, not ever. It is magic.
When you get a little older, on the other hand, the beast is with you still, but now, it’s riding you. And there is no saddle. Its front legs are wrapped around your neck, its back legs are wrapped around your midsection, and it is drooling into your hair. Eventually this goblin straddling you like some kind of nasty, satanic shawl completely engulfs you. This is its revenge. You no longer conceive of your body as something that is beneath you, or beside you, or before you; it is the bubble in which you float, poorly. When you act, you act in spite of it, or as a function of its fearsome beneficence. You practically have to ask it permission to breathe.
As one ages, then, one adopts—or, at the very least, adapts to—a body-first, body-forward type of attitude. You don’t act and then see what the body has to say about it. You consider the body, and then weigh the consequences of acting, all before making a move. Because everything you do, you’re taking a chance. I’m talking everything. Remember a few years ago when you didn’t have to put any thought into bending over to tie your shoes? Ha! That’s like imagining back to the days before the Huns rode in and burned down your village. Ah, the good old days, before the Huns showed up! Before you had to clear a special place in the foyer, the bending-over-shoe-tying area, carefully designed to ensure that in the event something goes awry mid-shoe-tie and you end up up-ended with your face against the heating vent and your feet somewhere in the air above you, you at least have room enough to roll over, and don’t have to starve to death waiting to be discovered by the paperboy.
Everything you do, you’re taking a chance. The wages of questionable behavior become irksomely difficult to gauge in advance. Remember back when you were a young, fancy-faced, drag-racing pop star and you could drop a Taco John’s six-pack-and-a-pound down your throat as a pre-dinner, without a thought to the consequences, because the consequences were basically nil? Because your factory-fresh digestive tract could chew through anything, with the heartless efficiency of a wood chipper eating a giraffe? And now, as you’re rounding your mid-30s, and you privately assume that “six-pack-and-a-pound” is probably a reference to sexy drugs they do at underground German raves to which you will never be invited, you can’t even know for sure that the apparently docile mug of vegan bean chili you’re eating won’t result in such ass-shattering gas that you will be forced to cordon off entire rooms of your house, the quadrants where the worst devastation occurred. There may be rooms you can never go into again. The kinds of rooms usually reserved for locking up one’s insane wife or hanging the horrifically aging portrait your pal Basil whipped up of you on a dare while drunk may become nothing more than the containment units for your roaming, near-sentient clouds of ruthless butt-poetry.
But look, I’m making it sound bad. I realize that. But it’s not bad. I mean, it’s not all bad. Consider this: when you begin growing older, a plain and simple pursuit like a really strong dump becomes just a delight. When you’re young, a bowel movement is the sort of trifle you might partake in as a way to provide light entertainment for yourself while accepting friend requests. A kind of vague, fluttering floorshow going on somewhere in the back of the club, behind a curtain. When you’re older, you’re lucky if every excretion is anything other than a grand extravaganza—a real showstopper. After you round the pointy tip of age thirty, any trip to the pot is almost certainly going to demand your full concentration. You may take in the newspaper under the pretense of wanting some alone time to skim the box scores, but you know full well the only purpose that paper is going to serve is as something to roll up and bite down on when shit gets real (literally!).
And yet there is something truly wonderful about these funny little reversals of fortune that age affords. Youth is concerned with the building of the big things. To quote Messrs. Harburg and Gorney, “Once I built a railroad, I made it run. I made it race against time.” That’s youth—always striving, never satisfied. Age—old or even just slightly so—is happy if it’s spared a dime. The small victories seem insanely fulfilling, and when one learns to keep an eye out for them, are discovered to be countless. Anyone who has ever turned around to sneak a peek at their fecal achievements knows too well the fine, jubilant moment when it is possible to say, “I made this. I turned myself inside out, and made this. That is something.” These are the types of things young people don’t appreciate.
A little more verse, now. This from a man who, dead at 28, will always be young, though he certainly displayed a keen understanding of the travails of the aging. Here:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
That’s Stephen Crane, by the way. A young person taking stock of these lines would no doubt cry out to be, “Gagged with a spoon!”, or whatever it is the young people are crying out to be gagged with these days. And yet most people in the orbit of my age, after reading these lines aloud at a party and hastily pretending to be wowed by their disturbing impact, would probably shrug to themselves and mutter, “Yeah, I could see myself enjoying a bit of my own bitter heart, like, with a cup of green tea and some nutritional yeast maybe, and also one of those crackers from Carr’s that actually tastes like a cookie. Cookie cracker, yes. Brilliant.”
At the point when you find yourself identifying more with the naked, bestial creature enjoying his own heart in the desert and less with the person who stumbles upon him is the moment when you can party with me. Exit youth! Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome! You have entered the sector of life when you frankly have to fight not to be mindful.
A professor of mine back in the day, the late, great Herman Sinaiko, once spoke of his hesitation to teach Homer to undergrads, because he felt that without a certain amount of life experience, it was simply impossible to come to grips with the intense emotional impact of such profuse narratives. I agree with him. When I was myself an undergrad, I understood a number of valuable things about The Odyssey: its story. Its history. Its form. Its influence. But what I did not understand at the time and am only beginning to understand now is that its underlying tone is one of exhaustion. The desire not only for the adventure to be over, but for it to perhaps have never begun in the first place. Daily life is enough of an adventure—perhaps the profusest narrative of all. Very little embellishment is required. With suitable attention paid, one can learn to appreciate “the extraordinary possibilities for some genuine satisfaction in the commonplace facts of our bodily mortality,” as Sinaiko himself put it. To put it another way, survival is sufficient.
As a young person, it is perfectly fine, perhaps even preferred, to not consider survival to be sufficient. If young people thought like that, we’d never get those railroads that race against time. We’d never get those towers to the sun, built of brick and rivet and lime. But at a certain point, if the sufficiency of survival fails to sufficiently impress you, you start to seem like a lunatic. Let’s return ourselves, for a moment, to the superlative verse of Mr. Crane:
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never”—
“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.
There’s a point when you may experience the desire to run away, screaming, even, from your own skeleton. But you’ll be missing out. Instead of trying to teach the body a lesson—the prerogative of youth, if there ever was one—you can listen to what the body has to teach you. There’s wisdom in them bones—more than in every inch of the horizon, which is, after all, only a dream of recovering an uncoverable distance.
(1) I.e., all of them. All of them. So help me god, I’m including the v-sit. When I think back to the days when the president’s physical fitness challenge had a measurable impact on my life, the thing that strikes me as really weird and sad is that I was apparently too pure of heart to even be properly cynical about it—which is, clearly, the only rational reaction to have —which meant I felt really, truly terrible when I inevitably shat my suit (so to speak) during the shuttle run. Not because the fact of doing so made me feel weak or inadequate, but because I couldn’t help but feel as though I was somehow letting the president himself down. Now, I was no idiot, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some small part of me that imagined the president was personally reviewing the stats from every grade school in Dubuque, Iowa, in order to rate how we were stacking up. Nationally, I mean. And also against the Russians. [http://historyz.com/ebay/5020w.jpg] I mean, sure, I never thought he was doing this in lieu of thinking about nuclear disarmament treaty talks or anything, but it certainly crossed my mind that maybe, you know, maybe he would take a quick riffle through the sit-up numbers while taking a dump or something. Then again, these were the Reagan years, and given the impressive likelihood that man was going to die on the toilet, I’m guessing he was not allowed to ever go to the pot alone, but rather, like the royals on their wedding night, had to be observed performing his corporeal duties by everyone in his inner circle, like, from inside a great glass shaft, and with George H. W. Bush standing by, hand on bible. By the way, while researching this footnote, I learned that the president’s physical fitness challenge has been discontinued, as of this year. Amazing! In a respectful perversion of this American institution, the contours of which were clearly seared into my brain when I was a child, I shall raise a heavy cocktail again and again and again to my lips this very evening while dreaming of it.
(2) Actually, close observation of any recently born baby would suggest that, when we’re very young, we do in fact appreciate each bowel movement as a jubilant event. So maybe it’s more like an inverse bell curve? Consider pursuing “babies as mindful persons” for next column. —Ed.