Since my divorce I have bought a new home where I live with my girlfriend. I do my best to encourage my children to visit as much as possible. I have no other purpose at the moment.
This weekend my daughter had some friends come over, and one was driven by her father. He came into the house and stood in my doorway. After saying an unnecessarily elaborate "goodbye" to his daughter, he continued standing in my doorway while my dog barked at him.
Suspecting he wanted to learn more about the occupants of the home to which he'd just committed his child, I introduced myself to this tall, slender man and silenced my animal.
He told me his name was Fred and after we finished the usual "I'm the father" pleasantries, he did not seem inclined to leave. I opened up a few other topics: that we'd just moved into the neighborhood, and the work he saw us doing was our typical weekend home upgrade/repair to which we were enslaved for the coming months having bought a "fixer upper". He listened with a bright smile but offered very little conversational support. After that brief, one-sided discussion was over he didn't seem any more inclined to leave or talk so I decided I'd resume my tasks by working around him.
He followed me to the garage where I went to retrieve my Makita drill to put anchors in the wall to put up the new towel racks.
He waited for me to come out with my drill and said, "Since the divorce my kids won't talk to us anymore. They don't want to have anything to do with us."
I said, "I'm so sorry," and then offered my own experience, "I know how it is. No matter how correct a decision it seems to be, it's extraordinarily difficult. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It feels like --"
I concentrated on putting up towel racks to keep myself from falling through the earth's crust. I thought about it so hard I thought I could make a brass towel rack materialize right there on my concrete walkway.
He started to say something but wound up gasping as if the world had suddenly deprived him oxygen. He said, "My wife. She thinks it's right." He rubbed his eyes.
And I couldn't think about towel racks anymore. I imagined him and his family on Christmas morning amid piles of wrapping paper. I imagined him opening a flowery birthday card signed by his wife in cursive with tiny smiling hearts where the dots should be. I imagined him at his daughter's birth. I imagined he couldn't figure out why it had to end with him living alone in an apartment in San Jose.
He said, "My wife..." and I could barely breathe.
He got into his old white Mercedes and drove away.
I have not felt well, since.
My dreams are full of ghosts.
There are not supposed to be any stupid questions. The stupidest smart question I have ever heard asked was to a writer. The question was, "How do you do it?"
To which the writer answered, "Huh?" And then there was silence.
One could imagine the writer composing a cogent response mentally, and when the mental gears got fouled, he was thrust into a caustic zen silence that ate through the very fabric of reality.
How, indeed, does one do it?
The answer to that question is in the drawer right next to the answer to the question, "Where am I in my brain?"
This isn't to say we won't someday possess a satisfying answer. But at the moment we don't have one.
Indeed. Nobody knows.
I am becoming more forgetful as I get older and I'm realizing there's a certain degree of freedom in it. It can be pleasurable to forget one's troubles at midday. Not remembering bills can lower the blood pressure.
I feel strongly enough about this to think that Alzheimer's is probably an issue only for those without it. If you can't remember what's happening from minute to minute, you're liable to be perpetually unsettled or perpetually calm. Either way, there's no internal mental alternative to the situation.
However, I'm realizing the act of writing something down sears it into my permanent memory. Every now and then I think to myself that I should keep more lists. If I kept a list of all the important things I have to do every day, I'd never forget a single thing.
Every now and then I try keeping a list and I remember everything on it. I remember writing the list. I remember how the pen felt in my hand and the texture of the paper. I remember it so well I can see the list in my mind without actually holding it. It's so clear to me that writing the list in the first place seems like a waste of energy.
And then I stop keeping lists and forget everything.
If there is an answer to, "How do you do it?" about writing, I might suggest that the act of writing is the summary of the things that are clearest in my memory. Possibly, I only write things I've written before when I was worried I'd forget. But if I write down everything about you then even if the plaque in my brain kills all my memory cells, I'll still remember who you were.
I'm quite sad Kurt Vonnegut has died.
For as long as he was living there was the possibility that I would be able to meet him. If I met him I would say, "Kurt, make me young again," as Kilgore Trout said to him at the end of Breakfast of Champions, the second greatest book ever written.
Because I am a character from a Kurt Vonnegut novel he would be able to grant my wish.
Back when I first thought of the wish I was quite young, still a teenager. I had a lot of dreams and I've had a good enough life that I've been able to experience many of them.
This one will never happen, though, and I'm sad that as I get older I have to watch many of my dreams drop off, one by one.
I've been thinking of making a list:
List of Dreams
- Going to the south pole - check
- Playing in a rock band before a big audience - check
- Publishing some short stories - check
- Doing a regular radio show - check
- Publishing a novel -- uncheck (Frank hated book)
- Meeting Richard Feynmann -- uncheck (blew the one chance I had, Feynman dead)
- Meeting Kurt Vonnegut and asking him to free me -- uncheck (Vonnegut dead)
- Staying married till death -- uncheck (marriage wrecked)
- Making a guest appearance on the Today Show -- ? (could still happen)
- Making a movie -- ?
- Retiring on a mountain overlooking the ocean -- ?
I can't forget my dreams because I've listed them. Long after they're dead, their ghosts rattle inside me.
I have become a maraca.
There is another way to look at Vonnegut's death. Now that he's gone, there need for another one. I officially throw my hat into the ring. I'm ready to write awe-inspiring novels about ludicrous religions, alien contact, and impossible chemistry.
Please look my way for ground breaking material, soon to come.
I can't shake this one. The question, "How do you do it?" is nearly always insulting. How do you jump 72 school buses on a motorcycle? How do you catch flies in mid air with your bare hands? How do you play jazz piano?
How do you write what you write?
These are foolish questions at best and ignorant inquisition at worst.
However, there is one way in which the question could be posed in which no offense could possibly be taken by anyone. That is if the question was asked by an alien.
If an alien from another world asked a human, "How do you come up with those stories?" we would sit it down and talk to it about human experience, the miracle of the human soul, and the grace of divine inspiration. And as long as it did not eat or vaporize us, we would feel honored to provide information on behalf of our species.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that we could have a great laugh at his expense by saying to each other after his death, "Well, I bet Kurt is in heaven now."
He would have liked to have known his death provided us with some mirth. The statement provides mirth because Kurt was an atheist. Maybe an existentialist. He figured that the human experience arose from chemical processes in the body and that after death, when the chemistry stopped, poof: no more person.
While this philosophy seems tragic to some people, I can vouch for the plain fact it yields incredible love, peace, and freedom. If this life is all you'll ever have, the thinking person is led to the inevitable conclusion there is nothing else to do with life than to be the best living thing you can possibly be. Love everyone. Be as helpful as you can in assisting all other creatures squirming in life's web.
I know. You think: he's got it wrong. It's the opposite. God says so.
You'd have to try it to know for sure. It's like becoming a vegetarian. How can I do without a hamburger? I really like bacon and eggs for breakfast.
But then if you really do it, you change and you can't imagine how you thought the things you did before the change.
When I was in my 30's I was a vegetarian for several years. I lost unnecessary weight. I felt light and quick all the time.
When I was in my 20's I was an existentialist for nearly a decade. I was unhappy about my own life, sometimes, but it was very easy to suspend judgment on everyone, and everything. Lacking the energy to judge my surroundings gave me peace.
I don't think like I did anymore. It's sometimes hard to imagine how I had the thoughts I did about not eating meat or the non-existence of life after death. My memory assures me that I had those thoughts and they assisted me in living a decent life.
Now I have different thoughts that help me.
My thoughts say, "Kurt is not in heaven now. But he's figured out that what happens after you die is that you're not really ever dead, because time doesn't exist, so you're always alive and dead at the same time, which is why saying, 'Kurt is in heaven now,' is still funny."
I think I'll have a breakfast burrito.
In case you haven't tracked so far: this piece is about ghosts and dreams and death, and perhaps the ghosts of dead dreams.
Sometimes the author doesn't do enough to let you in on the gag. He sits at the keyboard thinking, "the smart ones will get it but to everyone else it will seem like random patter." That sort of thinking is what always irked me about High School English class. I never got the joke. I never understood the writer's motive.
People worry, no matter what. If you don't believe in life after death, you worry about value. This writing provides value in two ways. First, there's value to me for having written it. Second, it may convey a feeling to someone who develops a resonance to it. Resonance is what makes us like music and things we read.
If my piece develops resonance in someone then I have provided value to that person and it makes me happy to know that might happen.
See, really, we're all about value.
Last Sunday evening there was a ghost in my dream.
In my dream I was speaking to the ghost of a good friend. He had chosen the setting for the conversation, as ghosts are wont to do. So we found ourselves in a prison visiting room.
I was terribly sad. My friend was awaiting execution after a murder conviction. In fact, this was to be our last meeting as he was to be executed within the hour.
"But why are you crying? This is my fate," he said to me.
I was crying because the sentence was unjust. My friend had been wrongly accused of murder. After DNA evidence proved conclusively he could not have been the one to commit the crime, he was acquitted of a first murder. But the District Attorney had him charged on a second murder which had been sitting on the books. Even for lack of any evidence at all, my friend was convicted on the power of the DA's courtroom theatrics.
See, in the U.S. a trial has nothing to do with truth. It has to do with guilt or innocence, which are human terms bearing no similarity to physical properties.
And so he was on death row because the DA needed more convictions to illuminate his career.
"This is my fate," my friend said. "It has nothing to do with you, or this jail, or the court, or the District Attorney, or the executioner."
Then guards then told us it was time for me to leave. They moved me to the door. I waved goodbye to my friend, and then as dreams are likely to be because time does not exist, I found myself outside the jail looking toward it from a great distance.
I awoke to the sound of a trap door opening.