This Blog is Stolen Property

Saturday, September 15, 2007

If I'm Not Religious, How Come I Have All This Religious Guilt?

Last night, my next door neighbor knocked on my door and asked if I could come over and reset the timer on her lights. One of her grandkids had knocked the plug out of the outlet, and it was after sundown.

This happens every so often on a Friday night. It's of course no problem for me. Except that I feel so...impious. My head feels conspicuously bare. The kids all look at me in a mix of awe and suspicion: I am the guy who breaks the rules. I always feel as though I am intruding somehow. As though I am being judged.

I'm sure they're not really judging me, so I've been trying to think through why I feel this way. Religion and religious people don't make me uncomfortable. I wasn't raised in a religious household, so whatever I don't believe is just habit not some kind of ideology (I'm looking at you, Chris Hitchens).

I know this sounds like a cliche, but some of my best friends are religious. And they don't make me uncomfortable.

I have friends who are outside of the religious mainstream--Orthodox, Calvinist, etc. We talk about religion and I don't feel uncomfortable. These are lively and invigorating conversations.

So what is it that makes me feel so guilty when I go next door to flip switches?

I think it's a kind of longing, an awareness that while I am free to use electricity on shabbat, this freedom comes at a price. It's not faith that's at stake so much as connection. When I talk to my friends about the Election of souls or the function of snoods, it's a matter of belief. But when I see the family sitting down for their sabbath dinner, each assenting to the prohibition against turning electricity on or off, it's not just about belief. It's about a community. It's about faith uniting people, about traditions followed consciously and thoughtfully. It's rather beautiful.

Or maybe they really are just judging me.


Has anyone ever been to Lubbock, Texas? Is it nice? Would I like it there?

I am sort of considering applying for a job there on a bit of a whim. I'm whimsical like that.

It's probably hot there, right?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Unusually Serious Post

About ten o'clock Tuesday night as I was lying in bed not sleeping, I heard fireworks. Five minutes or so of fireworks. And then again about an hour later. I would have assumed it was for the new year (and a belated shana tovah, if it applies) except that I have heard fireworks on September 11th every year since 2002.

I don't understand. I don't understand the fireworks.

This post is about my memories of 9/11. It's not political. I have political thoughts about 9/11, but they're not here. This post isn't my usual schtick--it doesn't try to be funny or clever or outraged or anything. And my story isn't special; it's just the ordinary story of shock and grief that we all went through. This is just what I remember about that day, and I've been remembering it a lot this week.

Like everyone else, I'm sure, the morning of September 11th 2001 is both unreal to me and unforgettable.

Boston is not New York. We don't have any constant reminder of the violence. But the two planes that were driven into the twin towers left from here. Bostonians were on those planes. Logan Airport is about five miles from my house. There's a kind of immediacy about the attack for this city, I think.

But not so much for me. The fear, maybe. But not the loss. I am not from Boston. I had lived in Boston for exactly 27 days when the planes were hijacked from the airport five miles from my new house. Whatever immediacy the attacks had for this city, I experienced as a spectator.

I was still adjusting to the move. The movers were late with my stuff. They ended up being nearly six weeks late, and the day before the attacks I had called to see where the fuck my stuff was and they said it was in Montana. Which is a long way from Boston. I had no furniture and the air matress I brought with me had a hole in it. So I was sleeping on the floor and crabby as hell. I didn't have any clothes with me, except for whatever I had shoved into the gym bag for the drive across the country. I think it consisted of one decent looking shirt, pair of sweats, a pair of jeans, and a Black Sabbath t-shirt that a friend once gave me after, on a dare, I sang "Iron Man" (badly) at karaoke bar. I was a little worried about starting my new life in a Sabbath t-shirt.

I was homesick and regretting the move. I've moved around before, but this move felt like something had ruptured. Like I was severed from my old life in some irreparable way. And maybe I was. I left a relationship that was too new to pick up and move across the country but too longstanding not to hurt like hell at leaving behind. I was deeply ambivalent about the career choice--it was the first time in my life (last, too!) that I'd ever done anything that could properly be called "ambitious." As both a committed Leftist and a certifiable lazybones, the notion of ambition has a kind of dread about it for me.

I was in a kind of mild culture shock. I'm still shocked by how rude this city can be (especially after the hyper-polite Northwest) and how alive people are to class and ethnic difference. But the city also just feels different, looks different, and that's what I was noticing then. A lot the difference is architectural--I'd come from the very newest bit of the country to the very oldest. My neighborhood seemed like something from a movie set to me. Plastic flowers set out on the asphalt yards of old Victorian houses. Old men in wifebeaters smoking cigars on the stoops. The sharp change of scenery just as you cross Beacon Street, from concrete and peeling paint to trees and and shrubs in front of glorious brownstones.

I heard about the attacks on my way to work, on the way to my very first official day of my new life. I heard about it walking through this movie-set neighborhood. I didn't have a tv or a radio or a computer (they were somewhere in Montana) so I hadn't heard anything. I first heard that there was something wrong from two women standing on their stoops shouting at one another. It seems like this was about 8:30 or 8:45, so nothing would have been known for sure except that some planes were in trouble and fighters from Otis were being dispatched. But maybe it was later. I don't know for sure.

I got to campus and found the building I was supposed to be in and a woman who I had met the previous week but whose name I had forgotten told me what happened and told me the evacuation procedures. There was a rumor that we might be a target.

The rest of the day went by in a kind of blur. Everything I knew about what was happening was overheard or prefaced with "now, I'm not sure, but what I think happened was..." I didn't feel the horror of it because I didn't really know what was going on. The closest I got to understanding the scope of it was when a man, whom I'd just met but knew by reputation, a man who was about 70 and as venerable as all get-out and one of the smartest people I've ever met--he asked "are we still supposed to talk about poetry?"

I muddled my way through the day, still not sure what happened. Then I went to a bar, thinking I could watch the news on the tv. I happened into a bar that doesn't have a tv. But they put the radio on and everyone in the bar sat there listening, staring at the radio.

I didn't want to drink. I didn't want to be in a bar. But I knew exactly zero people in Boston and I didn't want to be alone, either. I didn't have a phone (in Montana) so I couldn't talk to my friends or family. So I sat there for an hour or two, reading that morning's paper which seemed like it was from a different world. I think the front page story was something about the Big Dig.

As I was walking home, I started to have those guilty inappropriate thoughts that one sometimes has at a funeral or upon hearing devastating news. Like hearing that a friend died and wondering, however briefly, if you can get your hands on his collection of 45s. Or being at a funeral and mentally mocking the sappy music. These thoughts are inadvertent, but horrifying. Horrifying that your brain can betray your every impulse toward decency. So I was walking home and I realized that the visit my sister had planned would have to be cancelled. Thousands of people dead, and I was worried about my social calendar. I also kept thinking that none of this would have happened if I hadn't moved, if I hadn't pursued some stupid ambition. Or if it happened, it would have happened 3000 miles away and I could ease the pain of it in the bed of someone who loved me and who I loved. Thousands of people dead, and I was worried about my relative proximity to the event. I don't know that I have ever felt sicker at myself.

I stopped off at the Walgreen's Drugstore and bought a radio. A radio that I could scarcely bear to turn on.

I don't remember if I slept that night. I don't remember anything after plugging in the radio and not turning it on and looking at it resentfully. As if it were responsible.

The next night - it seems like it was a Wednesday - I had a fancy party to go to. I wasn't sure if it would still be going on, but I didn't know how to find out without a phone or a computer. And I had to go; it wasn't perhaps compulsory, but it was expected.

It was one of those weird official parties that I'm still not entirely used to. Half the people there have Wikipedia entries, occasionally someone with a Nobel or a Pulitzer shows up. And I think, "Feemus, what the fuck are you doing here?" This was my first one, and the unreality of it was almost more than I could bear. Some people were avoiding talking about the attacks, preferring to talk about baseball or books instead. Some people couldn't talk about anything else. Someone said her neighbor was on one of the flights to L.A.; she was trying not to cry. And most of these people, many of whom I was meeting for the first time, didn't seem like real people yet. They seemed like icons or fictional characters.

And I was suddenly overwhelmed hostility and resentment toward their celebrity. As if it were in poor taste to be famous or renowned under the circumstances. Thousands of people were dead and the world was changed and all they could do about it was stand around being famous. What goddamned good did that do?

I know that isn't the least bit rational, but that's how I felt.

I persisted in a state of unreality for a couple weeks. Two things made it real. I finally saw the pictures of people jumping out of the towers holding hands. And the day we invaded Afghanistan I heard that we broadcast warnings, for civilians to take cover. And I wondered how many Afghani peasants had radios. And what it would feel like to them when the bombs started dropping. Would they hold hands? Reality wasn't any better than unreality.

That's what I remember from 9/11. It's probably just like what millions of other people remember. I don't know why anyone would want to shoot off fireworks. I don't think we need a reminder. I think we all remember pretty well.

Monday, September 10, 2007

No One Wants to Hear What You Dreamt About Unless You Dreamt About Them

But I'm not going to let that stop me.

I've never been a very good sleeper, but I occasionally get bouts of severe insomnia. Where I can't seem to get thirty minutes of sleep in a row. Just some fitful dozing and a lot of flopping around and kicking the covers and generally making a nuisance of myself in bed. More than the usual flopping nuisance I am in bed, that is.

This is not a good condition to be in. But it occasionally has some hilarious side effects.

The most obvious of these hilarious consequences results from the narcolepsy that inevitably accompanies a long stretch of insomnia. After six weeks or so of sleepless nights, I will fall asleep on the bus or the subway. I once fell asleep and rode to the end of the line on the last bus of the day. I was stuck in a part of town I'd never been in and where there didn't seem to be any pay phones (this was before the celular era).

The subway is even dicier--you can wake up with your wallet gone and your virtue in imminent danger. "Buddy," I woke up once saying, "I don't even touch myself there."

I've fallen asleep driving, which really isn't funny at all.

I fall asleep at work, in meetings, pretty much anywhere I should be awake. During one particularly prolonged stretch (about six months) of insomnia, I actually went to the movies every day for a week, because it was the only way I could get any sleep. That's some expensive shut-eye, but it was totally worth it.

But it's the dreams that are the strangest. In the minute or two snatches of sleep I get, I have very vivid dreams. You know the kind that come when you're still half awake? They're not the REM dreams, but some other kind. Anyway, I have these during whatever sleep I get at night plus whatever inadvertant and inappropriate naps I take during the day. And they are often so vivid, that I don't realize that they were dreams.

I spent all morning in the library looking for a book that had a chapter I particularly wanted to read. This chapter concerned something that I am currently working on, and I was very anxious to read it. I knew the author and the title. I knew it was the second chapter. I knew what it was about. I knew the chapter title.

The book was Frances Yates' The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and the chapter was "The Figure of Adam in the Hermetic Tradition."

And it wasn't there. The book was there. But it didn't have the chapter.

So I figured it must be another book by Frances Yates, and I had just mixed up the titles. So I looked in all her other books. And it wasn't there. So I thought maybe I had gotten it mixed up with another book with a similar title. I looked through every single book on the topic (50 or so). And that very special Chapter Two was just nowhere to be found.

And as I was heading over to a different library, it hit me: the chapter was in a dream. Which I should have known, because I've read The Rosicrucian Enlightenment before. And I don't remember anything about Adam in it.

But the dream was so real. I can still see the table of contents, listing this very useful chapter.

I am left with a very unsettling realization:

My dream life is as boring as my real life. In fact, it's almost indistinguishable.

Which is sort of pathetic but also sort of funny.