Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Dream (4/5)

I even visited a psychic to ascertain the meaning of the dog-in-the-forest conundrum. I went incognito for fear a friend or someone from work would spot me. To her credit, Tabitha picked up right away on my apprehension, even before I walked through the door of her office-cum-living room. Indeed, her extrasensory perception impressed me at first. For instance, she understood instinctively that I was not normal and that I desperately sought answers to deep questions. Her psychic prowess was also on display when she figured out I was wearing a disguise—to wit, a knit cap and my dad’s Clark Kent glasses. Her easygoing nature got me giddy enough to make a joke about it. “Yeah, well, I usually go in drag when I see my therapist.” As Tabitha chuckled, I couldn’t help but stare at the layers of fat on her neck and face wobbling to and fro, practically hypnotizing me. Even her jowls had psychic powers, I quietly observed. At long last I was going to get the answers I had so ardently sought. And yet I would walk out disappointed yet again.

I’m not as naïve as I look. When my friend Howie proposed the idea of consulting a paranormal specialist, I had reservations from the get-go. So I decided to have a game plan. Instead of inviting her to interpret the meaning of the dream or divining its import for the future at the outset, I had her do what they call a “cold read.” I pretended that I had forgotten the details of the dream and it was imperative that I remember. I wanted to establish her credibility as a psychic, you see.

First of all, she got the dog wrong. She came up with a Boston terrier, as if an ugly square-faced pooch would haunt the forest of my mind! I nodded my head slightly and widened my eyes, as if amazed that she had nailed it. Then, Tabitha got the setting off—way off. This Boston terrier was leading me out of a New York subway. Convinced that I had become convinced by her psychic read of me, she ran with it, now empowered with the belief she could guide my memory as she saw fit. Thereafter it was the Boston terrier this, the Boston terrier that. It got to the point that I’d give anything for her to stop saying Boston terrier. As she was telling me that I would meet an attractive 20-something woman from Boston, Massachusetts in the coming months and that we’d live in her New York flat overlooking the Hudson, I got up, stuffed a few bucks in her jar to be nice, and started to walk out. (I had taken off my wedding ring to see if her extrasensory power could discern my marital status; she erroneously pegged me as a single guy.)

Tabitha realized she had gotten it wrong or, to be more precise, she knew I knew she was not on the mark. Whatever paranormal ability she possesses must have kicked in as I walked out, however, because she wised up to my ruse without me having to explain it to her. Seeing the disappointment in my eyes, she said I didn’t have to pay either the service fee or the appraisal. It’s not my fault that her diabetes has been acting up, throwing her psychic powers off. She told me her real name is Charlotte and that she’s been a psychic reader for less than a year. As she spoke these words, I pulled off my knit cap to scratch my head. It was probably a half-conscious gesture as well: if she’s identifying her real self, the least I can do is take off my disguise.

She’s still learning the trade and likes the flexible hours and the comfort of working at home. She also has aspirations to get her associate’s degree. Her mind was probably too preoccupied with a sociology exam the next morning. Adding to her stress was an argument she had with her mom over the phone regarding a guy named Ed, as if I would know who this is. I could tell she was grasping for excuses. Oddly enough, I didn’t mind; most psychics never concede their mistakes.

Intrigued, I sat back down and asked her how she got into this business in the first place. Her mom had been a palm reader for many years and almost helped the police catch a serial rapist in her more recent work as a psychic detective. She trained Charlotte in tarot cards, tea leaves, palm-reading, runes, crystals, even séances. I asked if the gift is hereditary. “Um, yeah, I guess so.”

She gave me a cash refund and told me a bit about her life, I presumed, not so much because she possessed the gift of gab—which she did—nor because she didn’t need the money—which she did—but because she was starved for companionship, living alone ever since her chain-smoking psychic mom had left her to watch the place while she shacked up with a truck driver almost half her age. She didn’t expect her mom back soon because Ed had a nice place at the Oakdale Trailer Park. Feeling better after our heart to heart discussion and sympathizing with her lot in life, I set her up with my younger brother. “He’s even better looking than me!” I made her laugh again, partly to show no hard feelings for the faulty psychic read and partly to watch her neck wiggle again. I was pleased to make a new friend and give my brother something to do next Friday, but alas, I had wanted answers to that confounded dream and instead went home none the wiser.

I would be amiss if I didn’t make brief mention of another encounter I had during my search for the dream’s meaning. I’m terribly embarrassed about it and with great difficulty resisted the temptation to leave it out of my account, especially since you might be inclined to think, understandably, that I’m a nutcase for having consulted a psychic. On the recommendation of a friend, I scheduled a meeting with a Guarani shaman from the rainforests of Paraguay. Please don’t judge me or my wife, who likewise considered it a good idea at the time. With 20/20 hindsight, you’d think I’d learn my lesson for seeking the magical arts; I was like the proverbial dog returning to its vomit.

Karen brought up my dream during a friendly chat we had with Nikki at Starbucks. A friend of ours from college days, Nikki is one of those granola-eating Peace Corps types who majored in cultural anthropology and has traveled extensively to exotic places like Amazonia and Indonesia. She’s a blast to hang out with and rarely in town, so Karen and I spent an hour or two talking about old times and our half-baked plans to save the world. We never tire of hearing about her escapades and scrapes with “fascist authorities bent on environmental destruction and political oppression.” She lives the life I once aspired to and yet I’m glad I don’t. But Karen and I always found her perspective refreshing, no matter the topic.

To Nikki my ecstatic state, as she called it, sounded like an omen and she urged me to see a friend of hers. “Healing is his bread and butter, but his passion and expertise is augury.” Not long after telling us about her friend the shaman, Karen beat me to the punch. “Sure,” she said sarcastically, “we’re going to get on the plane tomorrow for South America!” Nikki quickly explained that Manny, the name he now goes by, lives in the Twin Cities area. Seeing our expressions, she swore he’s legit, the real deal. Manny was not only a professional; he was a famous healer in his country. Let him perform the ceremony, Nikki attested, and I’ll not only unlock the mysteries of the dog in the forest but also attain a healthy sense of being.

I agreed too readily to check him out, both of us did, and we’d kick ourselves later for not having asked more questions. Karen went with me in case this guy turned out to be a psycho; there’s strength in numbers. He’s originally from the rainforest, I reasoned, and my dream takes place in a forest. Maybe he can help.

Because Manny speaks only Spanish and Guarani, Nikki made the arrangements ahead of time. When we met the petite man at his apartment in St. Paul, he welcomed us with hand gestures and wasted little time in proceeding with the ceremony to decipher my dream, or so we had thought. Manny’s teenage son spoke English, Nikki had told us, and so he might be able to assist in translation, but he wasn’t there when we first arrived. The place smelled like herbs and spices, and we could hear a pot boiling on the stove.

We found it a bit unnerving not being able to communicate, but Manny seemed calm and collected, as one would expect a master shaman to be. First he fed me a concoction of medical plants, herbs and berries after grounding some of these ingredients on a stone slab. It tasted bittersweet, if not foul. Meanwhile, Karen’s loquacity and nervous personality must have put Manny ill at ease, because he motioned for her to have a seat on the couch during the ceremony and not get in the way. Evidently he put some kind of hallucinogen in the “stew” because I was starting to get dizzy.

He laid me out on a table stripped from the waist down, took out a thin twig hollowed out like a straw, and proceeded to blow smoke on my forehead and exposed privates. He uttered a series of chants and prayers in between puffs. I turned my head toward Karen for comfort, but she couldn’t help giggling like a demon-possessed schoolgirl. She was surprised by the look on my face and deemed it the most hilarious thing she’d seen in 12 years of marriage.

Out of nowhere a teenage boy with a backpack full of books burst through the apartment door. We begged Manny’s son to explain what exactly his father was doing, but the boy spoke to his father in Guarani and appeared to ignore us. We realized the speed metal he was blasting on his iPod was drowning our voices, and Karen motioned for him to take off his ear plugs. He told us the goop consisted of guano mixed with shellfish urine, plus a mixture of plants and herbs including tobacco, sage, various nuts, and chopped up slices of a fleshly root called a yuyo—all of which was sweetened with the addition of Hershey’s kisses and acai berries. Karen and I glared at each other. What the hell is going on? The purpose of the herbs and plants, he continued to explain, is to put me in an ecstatic trance. “You’ll get crazy dreams and shit.” The potion would knock me out shortly and, he added, the jaguar shouldn’t alarm me—that’s his dad in animal form. With that the son disappeared into his bedroom to do homework. I was freaking out, but Karen tried to ease my fears with off-color jokes about me being a naked tribesman.

The shaman’s son didn’t speak too soon. I fell into a deep sleep, or, as Karen described it, a trance-like state. Suddenly, I was emerging from a thatched hut only to come across a jaguar attacking an anaconda. No German shepherd, no meadow. I was halfway conscious of being in an altered state. Then, I chanced to see my image at the water’s edge, that of a red-faced uakari monkey, and felt a burning sensation in my loins. I also espied a literal demonic schoolgirl atop an overturned Brazil nut tree; she was in a Japanese squat and had the face of Linda Blair. As I came back into consciousness, I could hear the shaman’s son cranking Metallica in his bedroom, the harsh tones of distorted guitars commingling with the fading growls of the jaguar-shaman.

Long story short, Manny did not give me any help with my dream, he couldn’t if he tried. Why? Nikki had miscommunicated my situation to Manny: he was performing the ceremony to cure prostate cancer! Needless to say, we were ticked. She doesn’t have the facility with the language that she led on. When Karen and I met her again at Starbucks a week later to vent our steam, she managed to gloss things over with her wit and charm. She regaled us with stories about climbing Victoria Falls in Zambia, but not before lamenting deforestation in the Amazon by rapacious lumber companies with ties to U.S. congressmen. We had practically forgotten all about the prostate ritual and let bygones be bygones.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Dream (3/5)

After the encounter with my weird uncle, I was hesitant to bring up anything remotely connected to the dream with another family member. But I did. Time has not been kind to Malorie, my great-aunt, but she retained the mannerisms and bearing of a 1940s starlet. My mom told me to share my dream with her, not so much because a ninety-year-old lady would offer a razor-sharp analysis, though neither I nor my mom, to be polite, were writing off that possibility. Really, the dog-in-the-forest mystery, as I was starting to call it, simply provided a conversation topic. Our little chit-chat, if that’s what I can call it, had more to do with my mom’s guilt for not visiting her aunt since the summer.

Don’t get me wrong, she loves my grandaunt Malorie, or at least thinks fondly of her, but she gets too upset when the subject of her mom, my grandmother, now deceased, inevitably comes up. The two sisters never got along. My mom once told me that Malorie always called Johann, my grandma, a Trotskyite. Back in the 1950s that was a declaration of war, she assured me. Nonetheless, I never believed my mom’s story.

Eventually I discovered that the real reason for their eternal sibling rivalry had to do with a man, but I never got the details. The way my grandfather used to pick his nose in public, almost nonstop, plus his antisocial personality—he could spend days watching reruns of Matlock and Murder She Wrote in his room at the assisted living facility—led me to conclude he could not have been the man in question, though for all I know he might have cut a more dashing figure in his younger days. So my mom sent me to Aunt Malorie as her proxy. Upon my arrival, her live-in caregiver, Ms. Monahan, poured us each a cup of black tea at my grandaunt’s insistence.

I went through the whole spiel, or so I tried. I’m running through the forest, fall down, get up, follow the pooch, and find the meadow. Aunt Malorie appeared attentive at first, but she soon tired of listening. She would stop me every few minutes with a random comment like “I like to place a sugar cube under my tongue to sweeten the tea as it goes down the gullet, but I can’t do that anymore” or, pointing to a frame on the wall, “Your cousin Linda painted that one.” I didn’t even know I had a cousin Linda. She would rattle off a bunch of names without any explanation, as if I knew who they were. This is what I feared would happen, but my mom insisted I visit my grandaunt since any day now she might “kick the bucket”—my mom’s words (!). I tried to explain to Aunt Malorie that I’ve been going around getting people’s interpretations of my dream, including pastors, psychiatrists, and politicians (this last group was poetic license on my part), and now I sought her view. I hoped she would be touched by my words. Instead, she told me about life before and after her hip replacement surgery. Finally, she concluded this excruciating soliloquy with another non sequitur. “Your great-uncle Charlie was a tall man like you. I’ve always liked tall men.” I took an extended sip of my tea to shake off the awkwardness of that statement.

My grandaunt’s responses to the story—to the extent one could consider them responses—merely reflected a stubborn preoccupation with her glory days. When I said German shepherd she mistook the words for Gary Cooper and launched into her experience as a showgirl on a Burbank studio when the famous actor was next door filming a scene for High Noon. Catching a glimpse of him in his cowboy outfit talking with the director must have been the highlight of her life. “He’s as handsome in person as he is on the silver screen.”

I had the temerity to say German shepherd again, undeterred and determined to talk about the dream. This time she went on about the first time she met Ernest Richmond Stein, the choreographer for many musicals in the late 40s. And for reasons unknown, the word forest reminded her of brushing up against Tyrone Power and his elegant first wife Annabella at a Bel Air party where my grandaunt served as a hostess girl. I soon discovered that any noun would trigger the name of someone she remembered from Tinseltown back in the day, even stagehands and key grips. Why didn’t my mom send my sister here instead of me? She’d be eating up this Old Hollywood lore! For my part, I don’t watch movies before 1970; it’s just a policy.

I chastised myself for wanting to be anywhere else in the world than at my grandaunt’s musty apartment, and yet at the same time I got a degree of satisfaction in performing a good deed. Still, had she paid attention to anything I said? Believe me, I make due allowance for an old lady’s meandering recollections, yet I found myself wondering whether her monomaniacal excursions into the past stemmed from dementia pure and simple or the residual effects of a life in pursuit of stardom. She was almost forty when she landed her first starring role in the sci-fi B-movie Dr. Mystery and the Robot Frogs of Planet Zorkon. She recounted her experience on the set, even alluded to a torrid affair she had with the producer, all the while demonstrating such a keen wit even for her years that I had misgivings about her dementia.

I looked at my watch and pretended I was late for someone’s funeral—a mistake. She went through a panoply of departed loved ones and the respective ailments that brought them to their death: heart disease, pancreatic cancer, emphysema, diabetes, loneliness, and the list went on. “My sister-in-law, Mary Charlene, your…now let’s see…that would be your maternal…hmm…maternal grandaunt, like me, but not by blood, sweetheart. Anyway, I say she died of a broken heart after Willy got swallowed up in that tornado.”

I signaled to Ms. Monahan to get my overcoat. If I got anything from this discussion, it was that my great-aunt was still living her dream everyday. I’d be more accurate in saying she lives blithely in her own bubble, but at her age I can’t blame her. At first I felt guilty for leaving earlier than planned, but as I motioned with my body language it was time for me to go, she broached the subject of my grandma in unflattering terms. I recognize an exit cue when I hear it.

I mentioned the dream to my next door neighbor, Frank, but he had the audacity to accuse me of lying about the whole thing! He took almost every word as a subtle attack on him and his family. Ironically, I had hoped to patch up our differences. My wife Karen and I thought that sharing the dream and getting his take on it would open up a friendly conversation. I’ve never understood where he was coming from, but in spite of our squabbles over the years I wasn’t expecting him to respond with such hostility. I was becoming quite upset myself; serendipitously, the martinis Karen had made for me that afternoon likely helped keep me level-headed. I’m generally a peaceful guy. Only violence toward children and false advertising can make me violently angry.

Everything in my story Frank perceived as an attack. The German shepherd, he maintained, was an oblique jibe at Spencer, his Doberman, who dug up our rose bed last year and shat on Karen’s garden gloves. And the bit about the meadow was me grumbling about the leaves he blew onto our lawn last year. He swears up and down he didn’t do it, but Karen saw him from our upstairs bedroom window.

My fall over the log, to his mind, was a circuitous complaint about a house party that, he admits, got a bit out of hand. He claimed he had no clue his boss would bring his own bottle of Southern Comfort, get wasted, proceed to prance around the yard like a buffoon, trip over the lawn chairs, and finally plunge into the pool fully clothed. The dried vomit running from our hedges to the mailbox, Frank confessed, belonged to his son Josh who had recently returned from Iraq. For what it’s worth, we’ve never said anything about the party, probably because it occurred during our trip to Florida. But that didn’t matter to Frank, who could feel slighted at the drop of a hat.

The tall pines in the dream, he insisted, served as nothing more than a thinly veiled reference to the large redwood lattice that he set up last summer. He presumed the leafy structure had made us upset because it blocked our view from the park located cattycorner from us. He couldn’t be more wrong on this one. Karen and I once remarked that the saving grace of living next to the Palmers—Frank and Patty—is during springtime when their red and purple bougainvillea are in full bloom. Likening the forest pines to the lattice was a stretch, only revealing Frank’s predisposition to flare up at anything I would say to him.

Speaking of trees, Frank did not neglect an opportunity to remind me that the roots of our Jacaranda was turning up their brick patio and would burst the water pipe. If we didn’t pay for the tree removal soon, he would call the fire department or file a complaint with the water and gas company. I didn’t want to get into it with him, in large part because I’ve had pangs of conscience about the last time this perennial grievance came up. Contributing to the cacophony of a growling dog and screaming wives, Frank and I started yelling at each other over the fence, even banging on it to hammer home our respective points. Judy, our neighbor in the other direction, later told us that she got so scared upon hearing the ruckus and not knowing who it was or what was happening, she considered calling the police. I never use the F-word unless I’m really angry, something startles me, or I want to ridicule someone. When Frank gave me an ass-chewing about the Jacaranda, these three things came together in a perfect storm, and I had to put him in his place.

But as I say, I feel bad about the situation, and not merely for my harsh words. When Frank and Patty went on vacation to Peru, I made a point of peeing in their pool at least once every day, but not before subduing Spencer with a piece of steak or hamburger meat. Karen gave me a hard time when I told her about these secret missions, but she changed her mind a week later. Judy informed her of the unkind comments Patty made about the macaroni casserole Karen had brought to the Fourth of July shindig. According to our gossipy neighbor, Patty also remarked that Karen fancied herself a rich glamour girl driving around in her new Camry. After getting these unflattering tidbits of gossip, Karen practically ordered me to continue with what we would fondly call Operation Urine. Looking back in retrospect, we now agree it was probably wrong to pee in their pool, and we’re glad I reconsidered leaving behind something worse.

As for Frank’s position on the dream, it might be a figment of my imagination, but it’s no falsehood. Nor is it merely a ploy to criticize him, his dog, or his stupid party. But sometimes even A-holes can unknowingly provide food for thought. Of course I’d be aware if I were lying about the dream, but what if somehow I’m deceiving myself? Self-delusion had never seriously occurred to me as a possible explanation for the dream until now. Secondly, of all the people I would consult, only Frank had an explanation for the leaves at the end of the dream, albeit a bogus explanation.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Dream (2/5)

I told myself I wasn’t going to bring up the dream at work, and I’m not sure why. I suppose I foresaw those wacky HR people bandying the details about in the break room. Even if they meant it in good-hearted jest to while away the time, I didn’t want to subject my dream, a personal and emotional experience, to the usual round of sarcastic remarks. I work for a software company and we pretty much goof around all day long, until a deadline or the area supervisor shows up. When Darren, our sales representative and a cool dude, visited my cubicle to chew the fat, as he’s wont to do, I inadvertently mentioned the dream and my search for its meaning. All of a sudden his eyes lit up.

Darren and I like to shoot the breeze, usually about the Packers or favorite horror flicks, though we’ve never spent time together outside the workplace. When he first got the job we’d greet each other with cliché banter. Working hard or hardly working? Why don’t you file THIS, huh? Eventually we graduated to pranks, old-school stuff like placing a whoopee cushion on Cheryl’s seat or something more innovative like setting up a video teleconference at a strip club (his idea, not mine). Management reprimanded me for such indiscretions, but not Darren. His uncanny resemblance to Jeffrey Dahmer, coupled with a boyish charm, always got him out of a jam.

I should explain that Darren is a little “out there.” He could spend the entire day insisting a whoopee cushion is more formally called a fart bag. I quickly disabused him of this inane theory. Also, he claimed that when he was a kid he came up with the beloved schoolyard joke which begins with the question: “What are you eating under there?” To which the unsuspecting victim responds, “Under where?” or, for all intents and purposes, “underwear.” I told Darren there’s no way he came up with this one. I did the math. He’s thirty-two years old, and the joke’s been around since at least the early Seventies. But Darren isn’t the type of guy who lets the facts get in the way of his self-image; he considers himself one of the most creative minds since Stephen King, his favorite author.

Admittedly, he ended up making my dream more entertaining than it actually was. Ever a sales guy with a keen eye for marketing, he saw potential for a great video game. He imagined the German shepherd speaking in a German accent, but he wasn’t sure if it were friendly or menacing. That would be the game, in fact: do you trust the shadowy canine to get you out of the dark forest or do you find clues that suggest otherwise and find an alternative route? He then decided, much to my objection, that the dog should be a she-wolf, maybe even a half-troll half-she-wolf, with a gravelly demon-like voice. And then he made the forest come alive, with ominous trees whose branches wield swords and daggers, the object of which is to destroy them with a magic saw before they destroy you. “This isn’t frickin’ Narnia, Darren!” After I objected, he tossed aside the video game idea and suggested my dream would make a great novel or maybe even a movie. He envisioned either Ralph Fiennes or, better, the German actor Jürgen Prochnow, doing the voice-over for the German shepherd.

Another one of his ideas for the movie would give credence to office grapevine about Darren being gay. The rumors are false, I hasten to add, but it doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, I don’t care if you’re homosexual, straight, black, white, Martian, Venetian—everyone is a child of God and anyone who discriminates against another person, for whatever reason, is an ignorant fool. Besides, I wouldn’t be hanging out with Darren if he were gay. The Jürgen Prochnow character, which Darren now described as a full-fledged human who appears in the form of a German shepherd when fighting evil, would stumble across his lover bathing in a mountain stream. Now, I’m fairly certain that Darren said his, not her, but he denies it. That’s so Darren! He’s too homophobic to concede an innocent Freudian slip. I just shook my head.

I’m not interested in writing a book or creating a video game or designing a software program or selling rights to a movie or anything. My quest is about self-discovery, or maybe personal growth, if not the meaning of life itself! Why does everything have to be about making money or seeking recognition? After these remarks, Darren looked at me as if I were the dumbest person in DummyLand, another idea for a video game he once shared with me. “Yeah, right,” he responded with an exaggerated wink. “When and if the book gets published,” he said half-jokingly, “I get ten percent cut, especially if you use the half-troll half-she-wolf idea.”

Apparently, Darren gossiped about my dream as he sauntered back to his office cubicle. Cheryl, with one of the new hires from HR in tow, stopped by ostensibly to warn me that the area supervisor is making a visit after lunch and everyone should look busy. Evidently mistaken that I would care and maybe trying to relate, she recounted a dream in which she was a princess and the object of every man’s desire. Using her considerable feminine wiles, Princess Cheryl was able to hold off invaders from taking the kingdom, until the arrival of the prince, who appeared in the form of a dog that, in the process of ravishing her, transformed into a shirtless Sting. I wondered if her brain realized her lips were giving voice to her secret fantasy. Probably not, because it also didn’t register the nausea her story was giving me in the tummy.

An inner voice had warned me not to discuss my dream with co-workers, yet I foolishly did not heed its call. Consequently, I learned something that day. In addition to reminding myself that Darren’s a doofus, I confirmed my earlier suspicion: I’d regret casting pearl before swine at the workplace.

By happenstance my weird uncle overheard me describe the dream to my cousins over Thanksgiving weekend and subsequently gave me a bizarre explanation. We were all sitting around with loosened belts and stuffed bellies after a gargantuan meal at my parents’ house. One of our family traditions is to share something for which we’re thankful. The kids, my nieces in particular, usually say something lame like, “I’m thankful for pumpkin pie and my hamster Samuel.” My sister, never disappointing us with her flair for the theatrical, shocked everyone this year when she expressed thanks for her (cheating) ex-husband’s motorcycle accident. We momentarily fell into an awkward silence. When it came to my turn, I unthinkingly uttered my appreciation for the clearing in the forest and the white dog that led me towards it. That’s how much the dream had been on my mind and how the surreal was seeping into reality. I just blurted it out. Naturally everyone was curious about my comment and wanted all the details.

Later in the day my uncle took me aside to offer an implausible story, and I recount it here only in the event that the reader can make something out of it, because I certainly can’t. For privacy we walked into the garage where he would weave quite a tale of a harrowing escape from the clutches of a would-be killer. According to my uncle, my flight through the forest was not the stuff of dreams but a real event that I’ve evidently refashioned into an enchanting fantasy so as to avoid reliving the trauma.

A deranged kidnapper had held me for ransom in an abandoned lumber mill. The shafts of light are my dim recollection of the kidnapper shining the flashlight into a shed to check up on me periodically. Lucky for me I had somehow unloosened the electrical cord from my wrists when my psycho captor left to retrieve the bag of money, because he had no intention of letting me live when he returned. My weird uncle wasn’t sure whether the German shepherd I saw was a real police dog from a K-9 unit or an illusion from effects of the chloroform slowly starting to wear off. When I informed him that the police don’t use white German shepherds, he rejected my comment out of hand. He explained that the dog had earlier burrowed his snout in alkaline soil in an effort to make out my scent, unwittingly getting white dust all over himself in the process.

My uncle then told me I have “a great little lady by my side.” He was referring to my wife Karen who had fully cooperated with the sheriff department to provide any details that might lead to my rescue. She also got the neighbors to chip in money for the ransom and at a great risk dropped it into a dumpster behind Wal-Mart as the kidnapper’s note had specified.

My uncle was a bit shady on the details of the abduction. As I was walking out of Burger King one late afternoon, the kidnapper, whom authorities later identified as 38-year-old Thomas Sherwood, asked if I’d help him with directions. He reeled me in with a sob story: he wanted to deliver a birthday gift to his eight-year-old daughter who lives with his ex-wife. They recently moved to a Chestnut Avenue. (How did my uncle remember these details? He has trouble with the names of his nieces and nephews, let alone his grandnieces and grandnephews!) As I crouched down next to his car to help him locate the street, he banged the door hard against my head knocking me out cold. Remarkably, not a single person witnessed him dragging me unconscious into the backseat of his Subaru. Countless questions arose in my mind. In broad daylight? Which McDonald’s are we talking about exactly? Did I put up a struggle?

I found it a strange coincidence that my dad and uncle went to a barber named Tom Sherwood. This Sherwood fellow also happened to own a purple Chevy van, much like the Mattel Hot Wheels car my son had left on a storage bin in the garage and right within eyeshot. I was skeptical. Some of the details didn’t ring true to me. I never eat at Burger King. If my uncle had said McDonald’s, and specifically McDonald’s in the morning, maybe I’d have believed him, because I share with my wife a wanton lust for their breakfast menu items. Also, I’d never help anyone with directions. I say, if you’re lost, get rid of your GPS cellphone and learn to read a compass, asswipe!

He said I have no recollection of the kidnapping, and he’s absolutely right about that. Between the trauma of the ordeal and the bump on my head, I’ve suffered from amnesia. The police would substantiate this story if I bothered to check. This crime had consumed various law enforcement agencies, producing one of the largest search parties in the state’s history and even yielding new techniques in forensic science. Those who worked on the case, however, have since gone into retirement and records are already under lock and key in the state archives. Moreover, while authorities had been searching for me for weeks, they kept it out of the local papers to protect family members.

Again, red flags started going up. I got the impression my weird uncle was covering his tracks. He was tying up so many loose ends, as if he wanted to dissuade me from substantiating his account. He even told me that, should I ask Karen about the kidnapping incident, she would lie about it to protect me. I was getting exasperated with my uncle’s suspicious tale. He had an answer for everything. “My wife? Protect me from what?” I got no verbal response from him. Instead, he swiveled his grey head, grabbed a toothpick from his shirt pocket, started to pick his teeth, and at the same time give me a look as if to say You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.

I didn’t know what to make of my uncle’s explanation. As I mentioned at the outset, the dream seemed like it was really happening, but I still say it was undoubtedly a dream. As preposterous as his story was, I came to realize that my uncle was merely trying to help. I reminded myself that I call him my weird uncle, not my mean-spirited or lying-sack-of-shit uncle. I swear, not fifteen minutes after I thought these words, my dad, upon finding out I had been talking with his brother in the garage, said, “Stay away from that lying sack of shit.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Dream (1/5)

In my dream, a white German shepherd was leading me through tall pines to a clearing. Shafts of sunlight breaking through the arborous canopy and revealing a shadowy world of ferns and brushwood kept my canine guide in sight. In one brief moment the noble beast would glisten like a beacon and in another fade into the landscape like a pale phantom almost enveloped by the darkness. I must have been running at top speed to keep pace, yet my movement seemed effortless, like I was floating above the dark verdant floor. Somehow I was able to take in the surroundings, paradoxically savoring the hidden beauty in my haste. Fixated on the strange glow coming from the break in the forest, I tripped over a felled log, but a clump of moss cushioned my fall. Slamming against the earth never felt so good; it was like landing on a soft bed and I scarce got up. The scent of clovers, pine needles and damp wood were as fragrant to me as any aroma I’ve ever inhaled. Upon hearing the commotion—the sound of my body falling in the forest—the shepherd dog came to a halt and, with tongue wagging and eyes sparkling like zephyrs, turned his handsome head my way, until I managed to get back on my feet. He trotted a few yards farther before sitting back on his haunches at the tree line, that magical threshold where darkness gives way to light. I stood next to the dog, following his intelligent eyes to a meadow bestrewn with red, gold, and brown leaves.

I could never figure out the meaning of this strange romp through a misty forest. Deep down I always suspected it was a metaphor for something buried within my psyche, a longing for acceptance or a search for meaning. Yet at the same time the dream was so vivid and it brought me to such an emotional state whenever I “relived” it in my mind that I questioned whether it really was a dream. It wasn’t a Kafkaesque dreamscape in which perception is continually shifting, when you’re you and not you at the same time, when you’re both the viewer and the object being viewed, the omniscient narrator and the protagonist. No. Perspective in this particular dream was what I’d call more empirical. All the senses had registered the forest mise en scène in ways they should, including my olfactory receptors, which is bizarre because most people don’t recall a dream for its smells.

I realize I’m not the first person to mistake a dream for reality. I even toyed with the idea that it was a hallucination, but I don’t take drugs of any kind, unless a glass or two of red wine in the evening counts, nor do I suffer any mental ailments like, say, schizophrenia or psychosis. After a good deal of soul-searching I determined that the event did not occur extra mentem; and so I came back to my original impression. The fact that it took a bit of convincing on my part to conclude the sylvan setting, the dog, the meadow—all of it—were nothing more than images generated in my fecund brain—what might appear obvious to anyone else—will convey, I trust, how close this dream approximated the real world. Wanting answers as to its meaning, I sought the counsel of others.

As a Christian man who regularly attends church, I thought it fitting that I first pay a visit to my pastor. After I explained to him the dream, finding it surprisingly difficult not to embellish the story for dramatic effect, he gazed upon my countenance as if I were Moses returning from the burning bush. Pastor Bob was convinced—and he certainly convinced me—that God had spoken to me directly. The Lord was using symbols to convey the truth in same the manner He had used parables in the Bible.

Pastor Bob and the ministry coordinator, a young part-time seminarian who joined us for lunch at a soup and sandwich shop, interpreted the German shepherd as the Shepherd, who, should I open my recalcitrant heart to His love, would lead me from the dark night of the soul into the light of salvation. The meadow represented heaven. This soteriological interpretation, cohesive as it was, made a lot of sense; but Pastor Bob and his sidekick appeared to expend more energy ascribing spiritual meaning to the details of the dream, as if it were a theological jigsaw puzzle, than driving relentlessly for the truth. I have no doubt that I’m a sinner in need of redemption, but I didn’t appreciate my subconscious experience becoming the subject of their exegetical musings. It smacked too much of Sunday preachers pointing to current events as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Book of Revelations. That’s fascinating, but is it really how they say it is?

Never one to control the outward manifestations of my state of mind, I probably wore an expression of incredulity. Otherwise, I’m hard-pressed to account for Pastor Bob’s abrupt change in demeanor and shift in interpretation. I also wondered if his chicken Caesar sandwich might be responsible for his modified behavior; he complained about the Mayonnaise and didn’t touch it again after two bites. (This irked me a little because lunch was on me.)

Pastor Bob switched gears and depicted my dream with a more sinister brushstroke. The dog is Satan trying to mislead me, the glow emanating from the “meadow” nothing less than the fires of hell itself. According to 2 Corinthians 11, the ministry coordinator chimed in, Lucifer can appear as an Angel of Light, hence the white form of a dog. The Cimmerian forest is still the dark night of the soul, Pastor Bob asserted, but instead of sin and temptation, it denoted the bottomless pit where reprobates wail and gnash their teeth. I noted a contradiction with his earlier statement that the meadow symbolized hell, but I let that go.

Seeing I was distraught, Pastor Bob offered me words of encouragement in a barely disguised effort at damage control. Little did he know that Todd—that’s the ministry coordinator’s name, and he looks like a Todd too—was as much to blame for jangling my nerves as the fire and brimstone scenario. He excused himself from our discussion to prepare for the Wednesday night Bible study. I was glad he left, frankly. I figured out the source of my irritation with him—a threefold source to be exact: his infantile habit of chewing on the straw after he finished his Coke; his compulsion to throw out New Testament Greek words like ornaments to adorn his erudition; and his contrived laughter after every one of Pastor Bob’s quips. What I’m generously calling a laugh, incidentally, was really Todd smirking and making weird breathing noises through his nose, as if he were too sophisticated for normal laughter.

One thing’s for sure: Were it not for Todd’s supercilious grin, I would have gotten more out of the conversation. When Pastor Bob, in his initial thesis, described my tumble over the log as signifying man’s postlapsarian state, Todd was an eager beaver to elucidate. “It means after the fall.” I didn’t know the meaning of the word, true, but I’d take ignorance any day over his gloating face. How gracious of him to stoop to my level, the benighted nincompoop that I am! I purposefully rolled my eyes for him to see. Eventually Pastor Bob shucked his second “Devil” interpretation, now worried it had disturbed me, but Todd’s haughty attitude was the real culprit.

There’s a little more to the story regarding Pastor Bob’s advice, but I’m hesitant to bring it up. It’s probably just a misunderstanding, and I have no desire to tarnish his good name. He called me a few days later, telling me that Jesus had revealed to him a few more details regarding the dream. His epiphany came after holding a prayer breakfast with church staff at McDonald’s yesterday morning. Really, as a skilled preacher well schooled in homiletics, Pastor Bob had already given me the message and wanted to follow up with the application. He asked if I could meet him at his office, but I couldn’t get off work on such short notice. When I offered to arrange another time, he suddenly decided we could handle this “business” over the phone after all. I didn’t like the sound of that word business.

The stumble over the tree in the forest, he informed me, suggested that bitterness or any number of anger management issues was holding me back from enjoying God’s full bounty of blessings. He went on about faith without works being dead, new plans for a radio ministry, reflections on Matthew 25, and a number of other seemingly random issues. I got the impression he was sort of beating around the bush. Finally, his voice took on a more authoritative air when he instructed me to write out a check for $10,000. Karen and I had recently sold our summer home in Door County, in large part to pay for our son’s college expenses. Pastor Bob was well aware of our financial situation. He asked that I write the check out to him personally, Robert S. Tyndale.

I couldn’t fathom why God would want me to fork over this crazy amount of money. Had the Lord sanctioned such reckless charity? I have no problem with faith, but blind faith? That was a leap I was not prepared to make, unless Pastor Bob was promising a plenary indulgence for that kind of cash! As far as my wife and I were concerned, he discredited himself as a shepherd of souls looking out for the best interests of his flock. Although we left the church shortly thereafter, Pastor Bob’s dubious behavior didn’t sour me completely on the dream interpretation he had offered me. I found the message of redemption plausible, but I wanted a second opinion.

Unsatisfied with the spiritual counsel, I sought an expert of the mind. Recalling that my health insurance covers five visits to a psychiatrist, provided I have a legitimate reason, I feigned mental illness to get the free appointment. The therapist, Dr. Sheila Constadter, initially came up with the idea that the white dog and “black” forest represented a racist view that I’ve harbored in my heart since late adolescence. According to her, I resent having to bottle up my animosity toward minority groups because the “oppressive rules of society” dictate love and acceptance of the Other. I’m one of civilization’s discontents, doomed to wander through the darkness of bigotry and intolerance chasing after the chimera of Aryan purity.

At first I thought she was being facetious. When I challenged her a bit on this interpretation, she took a different tack: sexual repression. In other words, she switched to the default position of psychoanalysis which says everything’s about incest and the libido. Why do they always go this route?

I must admit that this theory had never occurred to me, and were it not for the appointments with Dr. Constadter, it never would have. The felled log represented for her a limp penis and the moss, well, I don’t want to say. She had a weird analysis of the meadow which, due to graphic content, I likewise don’t wish to elaborate. Everything was either a penis or the recipient of a penis. The damp wood goes without saying. Even the pine needles, in Dr. Constadter’s hands, became little, thin phallic symbols. The erect trees? You got it: penis. I was a bit put off by her frank discussion of genitalia and the sex act. She upset me most when she claimed the dog, that magnificent blue-eyed German shepherd selflessly leading me to the clearing, was yet another penis image; that was the knockout punch after a cockamamie, impromptu dissertation on canines and the phallus in ancient Celtic culture. With this comment, it seemed to me, she violated something sacrosanct. Pastor Bob was much closer to the mark with his Savior idea, even if I ultimately rejected his theory too.

By the third meeting, I had had enough. I earnestly came into these therapy sessions with an open mind. I put up with the inconvenience of having to adjust my work schedule to Dr. Constadter’s busy calendar, not to mention a last-minute cancellation because of her niece’s bat mitzvah. I also had to deal with a snooty appointment receptionist who gave me even more grief in subsequent visits after I made a joke about snooty appointment receptionists—an ill-advised attempt to break the ice. When I became irritated with all the penis talk, especially experiencing discomfort discussing my sexual history with a woman, Dr. Constadter suggested that my uneasiness with the subject stemmed from lingering guilt and sexual repression after having seen my sister Lisa naked in a bathtub when she was four and I was six. I could care less about her degrees from Occidental College and Stanford prominently displayed on her office wall. My Mormon friend Howie had warned me about undergoing mental treatment. He said most psychologists and psychiatrists are freaks who majored in psychology and went into the profession because they wanted the tools to wrestle with their own demons, be they sexual hang-ups or abused childhoods. I discontinued the therapy and had to seek answers elsewhere.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Aphorisms, Adages, Proverbs

(1) In the best of all possible worlds murderers and rapists would get the death penalty.

(2) I’ve never made love to a manikin and have always lacked self-assurance; yet somehow I know this would be good.

(3) It’s not about agreeing with people, but accepting them for who they are and respecting those who might disagree with you; and I have found that the best way to accept and respect these people is to round them up systematically and place them in reeducation centers.

(4) I want not only the best of both worlds, but perhaps a third world too, provided that this third world is not codeword for penis, as in the expression third leg, which I happen to know is often a reference to the penis.

(5) I trust my fellow man completely, but, just in case, I carry a concealed firearm when I go camping, have a truncheon I call The Persuader strapped clandestinely to my shin, and keep a small stockpile of sharp objects under my car seat.

(6) One way to make the world a better place is not to assume yellow snow is lemonade slush.

(7) Finding the razor’s edge between dogmatism and skepticism is like taking a crap in the woods: be mindful of the dangers that lurk on all sides.

(8) Stamping out evil in the world starts with the gift of discernment and a machete.

(9) If you despise your Russian communist neighbor but wish to be cordial, tell him you’d like to give him a Stolypin necktie for his birthday and share a Molotov cocktail with him.

(10) If you love someone, you should tell this person how you feel, provided you’re not a priest directing those three magical words to a child as you’re coming out of the shower.

(11) War is never the answer, but it is the proper response to most of life’s problems.

(12) If I had a nickel for every person who gave me grief, I’d dump the large sacks of coins onto the floor of my cabin, smelt the metal alloy, and fashion a pistol to assuage my grieving heart.

(13) Pitching a tent is like erecting a monument; both take physical labor and make you wonder what’s really going on.

(14) I’ve never met a black or Jew I didn’t like, and I despise racists, with of course the exception of black and Jewish racists.

(15) My sorrows have not only learned to resist efforts at drowning them; they pull me toward the depths below, and only my hope for something above the heavens serves as ballast.

(16) If you’re a young person wanting to join one of those weird UFO cults so that you can find purpose in life, achieve inner piece, and perhaps meet likeminded people devoted to spirituality, be sure you don’t end up becoming a sex toy for middle-aged men in the basement of a safe house in Cucamonga, California.

(17) Since cleanliness is next to godliness, I always wash down my sleeping pills with whiskey.

(18) If you think your house is haunted because you hear strange noises at night, lay off the apple cider for just one evening.

(19) The search for truth often leads through dead-end streets and blind alleyways, so discard your Chevy Suburban and get a moped.

(20) If another gentleman uses the urinal next to you, ease your anxiety by pretending you and your porcelain neighbor serve as Rear Admiral and Chief Petty Officer respectively on a U.S. battleship and you’re both peering out the bridge window looking for Japanese Zeros on the horizon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Terrible Itch

I had the Mother of All Itches the other day in that weird, fantastical place located between the scrotum and the anus, known by you science nerds as the perineum. According to Greek mythology, the Athenian hero Perineus, having stirred the wrath of the goddess Rectavia, ran his ship aground on the inhospitable shoreline between the twin rocks of Ilyciad and the sulfuric depths of Infernus. Centuries later, Plato, with evidently some kind of axe to grind, alluded to him unfavorably in the Allegory of the Cave. He’s the guy chained against the cliff wall just above the cave entrance, with the light of the sun (interpreted as Truth) absconded by overhanging cedars of Lebanon. Once again, truth is stranger than fiction.

Mind you, it was not the archetypal “rectal itch” per se. I wouldn’t waste your time with such a mundane ailment. When no one was looking I slightly bowed my legs and jammed my right hand down the backside of my trousers with the haste and single-mindedness of a greedy schoolboy digging for that evasive plastic-wrapped toy at the bottom of a Captain Crunch cereal box. But unfortunately I dislocated my shoulder in the process and for the life of me just couldn’t move it. Trust me, I am unaccustomed to digging around there in public, except when I become self-conscious of my weight and, oblivious to my surroundings, perform an on-site inspection. While Neanderthals use a scale, I need only fingers and two mirrors to gauge my health. If the butt crack, or gluteal cleft, has become more precipitous, it’s time to hit the gym.

Let’s put aside these important details and go back to my predicament. It’s not a situation you want to be in, especially when you are one of the church ushers about to pass the plate through the pews. I briefly stepped into the foyer, conscious that my arm was virtually submerged into my pants, like an anaconda burrowing into the Amazonian foliage. “Chuck, are you okay?” asked Melissa, our liturgist, who was obviously wondering where I had gone. What’s worse? Trying to explain how my arm disappeared into my new corduroys from Sears or lying? Not being communion Sunday, I lied through my teeth. What could I say? “I’m not feeling well,” I replied, turning the right side of my body from her gaze. With that I ran out to my car; after a heck of a time getting out my keys and stepping into the vehicle, I took off. It wasn’t easy. Later I took solace from Perineus who, according to the poets, faced the perils of his epic voyages with grace and equanimity.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Never Again?

In July of 1995 Bosnian Serbs under the command of General Ratko Mladić systematically murdered over 7,000 Muslim men and boys as a Dutch UN peacekeeping force stood by. They had found refuge at the UN "safe area" in Srebrenica, a town in Eastern Bosnia that Bosnian Serbs had intended to "cleanse." Mladić is still hiding somewhere in Serbia. His assault on the Muslims at Srebrenica was the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

I don't blame Dutchbat, the Dutch battalion ordered to watch over the area, but the UN leadership acted shamefully, it seems to me. Moreover, the perpetrators were able to use UN buses to transport their victims to the killing fields. In this instance, the United States was the decisive factor in ending the conflict, not the EU giants—Britain, France, and Germany—nor the United Nations. Nearly four years later President Clinton, without consulting the UN, ordered the bombing of Serb positions and death squads in Serbia and its province of Kosovo. This act didn't endear us to the Serbs, but it saved the lives of ethnic Albanian Muslims.

An independent country since 2008, Kosovo has expressed its gratitude in a Bill Clinton Boulevard and, because of his support for independence, a George W. Bush Street in the capital of Pristina.

I'm a far-left-wing kook who sees the U.S. as a force for evil in world, but as we condemn the genocidal governments of the past—Nazi Germany, Ottoman Turkey, Imperial Japan, etc.—we should be mindful of our own nation's "infelicities." We should get the log out of our own eye before we condemn. Additionally, we need whatever tools at our disposal to understand the awful crimes of the Holocaust, and looking inward is a way of achieving understanding. I wouldn't compare the slavery of Africans or the destruction of Native Americans and their culture to the Holocaust. True, suffering is suffering on the individual level, but from a macro-perspective there are some significant differences between these horrid acts. If you've read about the gas chambers, the T-4 program, the Einsatzgruppen and the rest of it, you'd know what I mean.

But the United States is also a force for good in the world. We're still a beacon on a hill, in my opinion. Organizations like the United Nations, however, leave much to be desired when it comes to peacekeeping operations (with the exception of a few commanders and troops on the ground). Just ask the Tutsis of Rwanda, the women of Congo, or the Muslims of Bosnia. They'll tell you.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Armenian Genocide

What's often been called the first genocide of the 20th century, the rape and murder of about a million Armenians took place under the cover of war in 1915, mostly at the ravenous hands of Turkish gendarmes and Kurdish death squads on a death march into the Syrian Desert. A few years before World War I broke out a triumvirate of ambitious men had ousted the sultan and seized power in the Young Turk Revolution. (Sultan Abdul Hamid II himself had persecuted Armenians during his reign, earning the title "the Bloody Sultan.") Under their watch the Ottoman Empire had sided with Germany in World War I and Turkish nationalism had intensified. The Armenians formed a large minority of educated Christians with a venerable history in Eastern Anatolia. After the war the Empire collapsed and out of the ashes a new Republic emerged under the firm guidance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But Turkey has not owned up to the sins of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, to this day. The Armenian diaspora in Armenia, Canada, and the United States in particular have sought acknowledgement of the genocide. The Turkish government downplays the number of deaths and claims that they resulted in the context of war, not genocide.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Voice Crying in the Wilderness

The Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a member of the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), struggled against the Nazi evil and paid with his life. The BK emerged in 1934 with the Barmen Declaration, a defiant stand against Hitler by a minority of church leaders: “the inviolable foundation of the German Evangelical Church is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is witnessed to by the Holy Scriptures and as it comes to light anew in the Confessions of the Reformation.” The Church, it also affirmed, is not “able or at liberty apart from this ministry to take to itself or to accept special Führers equipped with power to rule.” Bonhoeffer believed that the Judenfrage was the issue in the church’s hour of testing. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

The Nazis arrested Bonhoeffer as one of the conspirators in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. They executed him in a prison courtyard on April 9, 1945.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Jew Behind Every Corner

Modern antisemitism has two facets: it’s both racial and conspiratorial. To be sure, some Jew-haters in earlier times had based their persecution of Jews on the issue of racial purity, most notably in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella. Moreover, belief in secret plots conducted by Jews was not new in the modern era. Modern antisemitism, then, differs more in degree than in kind from religious antisemitism of the Middle Ages. I would like to focus on this second aspect of modern antisemitism—the notion of a Jewish conspiracy. An alleged Zionist plot to take over the world has found a wide and receptive audience for over a century.

During the outbreak of bubonic plague in late-medieval Europe townspeople and villagers believed that the Jews were spreading the horrific death by poisoning the wells. It didn’t matter that Jews also died in the Black Death. At other times they accused the Jews of abducting Christian boys to torture them and drink their blood in a perverse ritual. These plots weren’t random acts by aberrant individuals, it was thought, but a concerted effort by the Jewish community, either in part or in whole, to express their contempt for Christ and his children. Yet, these accusations were short-lived, emerged largely during times of adversity—and the Late Middle Ages had its fair share—and rarely extended beyond local or regional communities. Modern Jewish conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is a different beast.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion brought belief in a secret Jewish plot to a new level. The “bible of modern antisemitism,” to use Walter Laqueur’s phrase, was first published in 1903 in Russia, but it did not exercise influence or enjoy wide multi-lingual distribution until after World War I. The origins of The Protocols are still murky. Most scholars ascribe authorship to the Russian secret police who possibly wrote it in France sometime in the late 1890s. The document purports to be the record of a 24-session meeting of Jewish leaders in a cemetery in Prague (some versions set it in Basel, Switzerland). Their alleged aim is to use any means at their disposal—socialism, communism, democracy—to topple the governments of Europe and establish a Jewish Empire from the seed of David.

As a piece of propaganda The Protocols had much to recommend it. First, it had the matter-of-fact tone of a business meeting and was clearly an improvement over its earlier incarnation as a speech in Hermann Goedsche’s 1869 novel, Biarritz. This setting seemed to lend authenticity to the document (despite a fanciful 9th protocol that has the Jews threatening to blow up capitals across Europe). Secondly, The Protocols was flexible and could be adapted to regional forms of antisemitism. Variant versions of the alleged meeting circulated. The myth found especially fertile ground in revolutionary Russia and Weimar Germany where social discontent and antisemitism were deeply embedded. For antisemitic propagandists, The Protocols was a goldmine. Alfred Rosenberg, Nazi philosopher, published a German version. No less than the automobile magnate Henry Ford promoted its publication in the United States. He evidently had a change of heart in his final years, but by then the damage had been done. The uneducated masses believed, or at least chose to believe, in the conspiracy. Propagandists, including Hitler, probably knew it was a forgery, but realized its value for their agenda.

One can discern its influence today. Editions of The Protocols (and Mein Kampf) abound in the Middle East. According to a 2004 poll, 40% of Poles believe the Jews control their country, where most of the Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. The actor Mel Gibson’s alleged comments upon his arrest for DUI—“The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”—reflects the spirit of The Protocols, as do the words of the President of Malaysia: “[T]oday the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” Columnist and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, addressing the influence of the “neocons,” told Chris Matthews on MSNBC: “What they want, Chris, is a wider war, especially in the Middle East. They want the United States to fight Israel's war against Hezbollah, Syria and especially Iran. And the Israelis want us to fight Iran as well. But it's not in the interest of the United States.” It comes through also in The Turner Diaries, an underground right-wing novel of apocalyptic destruction and conspiracy that motivated homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

As Walter Laqueur writes, the closed season on open antisemitism is ending. Heretofore, antisemites had to temper their remarks in the decades after a horrific mass murder of Jews. So they have used, and continue to use, circumlocutions to refer to Jews: the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, New York, Wall Street, the Zionists, or the Neocons. Today, many Americans believe that Jews control our government and military and direct United States diplomacy. Antisemitic conspiracy buffs have alleged that Jews plotted and carried out the destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on 11 September 2001. It didn’t matter that Jews also died in the attack. The blood libel is also alive and well in the Middle East and Europe. A popular film in Turkey, Valley of the Wolves (2006), depicts a Jewish doctor, played by the American actor Gary Busey, who, backed by the U.S. military, harvests the organs of hapless (Muslim) victims in Iraq. More recently, a Swedish tabloid (August 2009) claims that Israeli soldiers stole organs from their Palestinian victims. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wisdom of the Ancients

If you were to ask me about my lugubrious disposition, you wouldn’t be the first person to do so. Many people wonder why I’m so glum. “Life is so wonderful,” they tell me with a gleam in their eye. “Think of the goodness of humanity. If you could just look for the sublime in this world, Mr. Viator, you’d find it.” I must concede that my sanguine friends have a point. There’s something to be said for seeing the glass half full. Heretofore I have darkened my mind by focusing rather perversely on untoward topics in my readings, when all along I could have been viewing the big blue sky above the clouds. Even Caligula, Calvin once remarked, could find beauty in a flower. Let us tap into the wisdom of the ancients and revel in our newfound joie de vivre. It’s all in the perspective.

The founder of the Ming dynasty, Hongwu, once expressed his noble intention to “stamp out evil people.” Would that political leaders in our country today expressed the same righteous zeal to root out the dark forces of the world! According to the Webster’s dictionary, the word “evil” refers to “anything morally bad or wrong,” or “anything that causes harm, pain, misery, disaster, etc.” Who in their right mind would not want to wipe that out? Blot these evildoers from the face of the earth, I say. Exterminate the brutes with righteous indignation!

Let’s fast-forward about 500 years in the same part of the world. Historians and moralists criticize the so-called excesses of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution under Communist China in the mid 20th century. But did you know that Chairman Mao wanted his people to be happy and productive workers? Talk about a humanitarian and visionary! He even provided learning centers throughout the country where people could re-educate themselves. If the first schooling was not enough, you had yet another opportunity to pursue your studies. German officials had promoted this work ethic a decade or so earlier in Poland. Say what you want about Auschwitz, but the inspirational motto “Arbeit Macht Frei,” inscribed over the gate, could lighten up any workplace with its bold promise of freedom, I should think.

Since we’ve broached the topic of the Holocaust, I would like to quote Adolf Hitler: “Force without spiritual foundation is doomed to fail.” What I take from this insight is that one should not push one’s views on others without first looking inward and cleaning up one’s own act. Take the log out of your own eye! Granted, Hitler was a genocidal maniac, but there was the moralist side of him from which we can spiritually profit. I’m starting to see hope for humanity where I had earlier seen only pain and despair, and all I had to do was alter my vision, as my friends have convinced me to do.

Some of those pessimists who haven’t yet made the leap into the light, as I have, might remark: “Look, that’s fine and dandy, but doesn’t Christian piety require you to admit that we’re sinful creatures, and this sin taints everything in this world? How can you be so Panglossian?” I take their point, but remember what the 15th-century noble Gilles de Rais courageously asserted during the dark days of the Hundred Years War: “There is no sin, no matter how great, that God cannot pardon.” Even when things look bad, don’t forget how much God loves us. Rais inspires all of us with his faith and conviction even after a tribunal found him guilty of torturing, sodomizing, and sadistically murdering at least 150 children in his private castle.

This great cloud of witnesses exhorts us to be vigilant against evil in the world, have a positive outlook at work, cultivate spiritual values, and find refuge in divine grace. Perhaps St. Paul, tapping into the collective unconsciousness, had these teachings of Mao and Hitler in mind when he encouraged the Philippians:

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever thins are lovely, whatsoever thins are of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day

Female readers of Der Viator Blog, I suspect, desperately want to know what I did for Valentine's Day. It's true that I can woo a woman as easily with my actions as with my mellifluous words.  Ever the romantic and not inattentive to affairs of the heart, I splurged and took my wife to Dairy Queen. I tore into an Oreo blizzard, while she availed herself of a raspberry Arctic Rush, what with her diet and all. Between slurps I ruminated on the materialistic, greed-driven society in which we live and that foists upon us poor saps a Valentine's Day or some such contrived occasion, all for the purpose of lining the pockets of Hallmark Card execs, restaurant capitalists, and florist fat cats. I'm not sure if she appreciated my diatribe, but I wanted to remind her that I can be quite passionate about stuff, a plus with women according to The Oprah Magazine.

I'm just kidding about Dairy Queen. I guess I find it difficult to discuss my love life without making a joke.  Heck, I still can't talk about Jack, my pet frog when I was in elementary school.  I loved that little guy, at least until he peed on my hand, at which time I tossed him into the drainage ditch across the street from my house.  He landed on a clump of grass, but I think a rattle snake eventually got him.  Wow.  I've never shared this before, not with real people anyway.  I have an imaginary friend named Justin Timberlake, not to be confused with the singer.  I would tell him my deepest desires and fears all the time.  I guess if I can talk about Jack, then I can talk about Valentine's Day.

So my wife and I get in the car, right?  I'm going to take her to a restaurant and a movie.   I give her three choices for dining and she says to me that I should just decide.  Then she recounts to me a conversation she had with a female co-worker about the man taking charge in situations like this.  Evidently she told her friend that I had planned the whole evening and the friend thought that my proactive approach was romantic.  Taking charge.  Well if that don't beat all!  She wants me be a man, call the shots, set the agenda, huh?  I told her that it just doesn't work like that.  I can't push a button and all of a sudden be her knight in shining armor.  Excuse me if I find it a challenge to get out of the obsequious mode and pusillanimous demeanor that she's meticulously created for me.  Women of today have written the script for us, all we stupid men need to do is read our lines.  (That's what I tell Justin Timberlake all the time, anyway--again, not the real singer...)  It all started in our first year of marriage when she'd lay out clothes for me on the bed each day.  My brown-in-back and yellow-in-front sensibility didn't quite meet her high-falutin standards, and she quickly showed who's boss.  Since then I've learned not to stray far, and she keeps a tight leash.  And now I'm supposed to be Fabio, ravish pher like the cover of a Harlequin romance, and tell her what we're doing?

We ended up going to a Mexican restaurant, which was no surprise to her.  The way it works is that I stuff my piehole with chips and salsa whilst she prattles on about my ineptitude.  Is it a wonder that I'm craving a strawberry margarita with extra tequila by this time?  I need something to drown my sorrows.  Problem is, by the time I get the drink, my sorrows, to quote Bono from a U2 song, have learned how to swim.  In fact, when I returned to my margarita from the restroom, these sorrows, like lifeguards with too much time on their hands, had already taught new sorrows to swim and now they're all splashing around having a gay old time.  Fortunately for me, my wife knew our waitress, a former student of hers, and so the tongue lashing I received was less virulent than usual; my wife didn't want to come across as overbearing.  But enough with the romantic dinner!  Let me skip to the movie.

We went to the fancy, upscale theater to see "A Single Man" starring Colin Firth. My wife loves him, largely because of his portrayal as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.   For weeks I went around the house talking in a British accent, wearing a black trenchcoat, and pretending to be sensitive, not so much out of jealousy but to demonstrate how ludicrous was her attraction to fops and dandies.  My sullen brow and wistful expression made Lord Byron look like Howdy Doody by comparison.  All my efforts were to no avail, however, as my wife would trot off to the next Colin Firth film, prancing and whinnying like a horse before quenching her wanton thirst at the trough of his thespian prowess.

The movie's based on a Christopher Isherwood novel about a gay English professor named George Falconer who teaches English literature at a California university in 1962. His partner of 16 years dies in a car crash, and he must suffer this loss alone and in excruciating silence (though his platonic girlfriend played by Julianne Moore commiserates with him). I had been wanting to see the film, intrigued as I was with the idea of portraying a person who outwardly seems fine but who is absolutely devastated and destroyed on the inside.  Similarly, Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Richard Cory" about an enigmatic man who commits suicide took ahold of my imagination when I read it as a teen.  The Colin Firth film, I think, gives a touching portrait of two men in love without--and this is key for me--indulging in any sex scenes. Also, had it dealt with, say, gays in the military, I wouldn't watch it, because I don't like movies that engage in social engineering or have a political agenda.  "A Single Guy," on the other hand, is an attempt to explore the emotional depths of human nature.  It's more about art for art's sake, and the highly stylized film evokes, at least for me, the early Sixties, in the protagonist's thick-rimmed glasses, the furniture, the clothing, the brownish and grey tones that weave through the frames, and a large mural advertisement for the film Psycho that forms the backdrop to one scene.

While I wouldn't rank this movie as great and the ending is a bit problematic for me, I was quite touched by the portrayal.  In fact, while my wife was salivating over Colin Firth, I was smitten--dare I say it--by another character in the story, a young college student whose lithe body, firm buttocks, compassionate heart, and delicious blue eyes got me going.  The young man seemed to take an interest in the professor, and at first I presumed he merely wanted to bed his teacher; but in the end he comes across, as my perspicacious wife pointed out, as a kind of guardian angel (if not a sentinel standing watch), who saves the bereaving man from a worse fate.  Keep in mind I'm a heterosexual. I'm not saying that, like George Costanza in Seinfield, "it moved," though it did move, but in the opposite direction, as I spilled coffee on my lap during the opening credits and, in yet another Costanza moment, I experienced shrinkage.

Plus, any sensuality that I was experiencing was ruined when my wife, with her legs slung over the seat in front of her like she owned the place, let loose a fart and she had the indecency of informing me of this fact. Not cool, but I admit I'm not one to cast the first stone. Besides, it's my fault for recommending that she get the chimichanga, rice and beans platter.  But how is that supposed to put me in a romantic mood, I ask you?  And to think: I had refrained from picking my nose in public the whole evening, more in an inane attempt to preserve the semblance of civility and decorum--something my wife had instilled in me, ironically--than because of any moral scruples on my part.  I would like to add, though, that if it had been me with the gaseous emission--and it usually is--I would have timed the fart with my lover's smacking of the popcorn and thereby provide a diversion, especially on Valentine's Day when one is trying to create a certain ambiance.

But seriously, my wife is wonderful and were it not for her (and my kids too), I have the suspicion that I would have given up the ghost years ago, or at any rate coaxed out the ghost with my henchmen, Johnny Smith and Baby Face Wesson.  After the movie we had a relaxing time together, drinking wine and listening to Justin Timberlake, the real one this time.  I'm a lucky man to have met and married a woman like my wife.  I have no complaints, except one, and it can easily be rectified by avoiding Mexican food.