What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

PART TWO

And so, I look upon this pile of books–this rubble in my room. Books split open with their pages bent and creased. Some stacked on others in unnatural ways which pain the eye to peer towards. It all lays there. Non Fictions bending in reverse underneath the Norton Anthologies which are twisting the delicate paper of the smaller paperbacks. A heap of tragic angles piled like a mass of broken limbs.

I’ve been here before though. Maybe not staring at a mess of disheveled books, but I’ve been on the ground floor of catastrophe. We all have. In the midst of chaos, confusion, we have nothing left to do but rebuild. Now some might equate this pile of books to a spilt glass of milk. And in retrospect, it’s not a big deal by any means. But I’ve seen this scene before somewhere. No. Yes. I can almost remember where. No, I’ve felt like this. Yes, that’s it. The way this mangled pile looks, I’ve felt that–the unnatural bends and folds helplessly waiting to be reconfigured. I remember being scattered without any points of reference.

Shortly after dropping out of my senior year of High School and completing what was to be my first rehab I found myself living on an island called Ocean City in an Oxford House. These were democratically ran residential homes where recovering drug addicts and alcoholics could figure out how to be productive members of society again. I was eighteen, just over a month clean, and was making another attempt at being a functional human. I started to read Dante’s Purgatorio which was Dante Alighieri’s ascension from Hell, (the Inferno) to the higher planes. I thought the book symbolic of my position. Mostly because this new sober world seemed like a gray middle area between suffering and ecstasy. My eyes crossed enough times from boredom to give up on reading the seven hundred year old epic poem and I got a job landscaping.Rising_sun_Ocean_City_NJ

A couple of months into cutting grass a friend from back home invited me over to her house on one of my weekends off. I met her dad who was some kind of museum curator who had been battling cancer and the medical bills were financially crippling her family. He took me into his attic and showed off some of his prized antiques and a book collection. The collection was huge with mostly paperbacks. He wondered if I was interested in purchasing all of the books. Normally he wouldn’t  bargain with them but he was in a difficult position from the cost of his treatment. I agreed to pay two hundred dollars. I was driving an 88’ Lincoln Towncar which with a trunk the size of a small Jacuzzi. The purchased books filled the entire trunk and I drove back to Ocean City with the suspension buckling the car’s back end.

I wasn’t interested in most of the books so I took the lot to one of the only book stores on the island; a corner store named Bookateria. There I exchanged the whole collection for store credit. This was almost eight year ago now and I still have not burned through that credit. The store keeps thorough records and somewhere on a rolodex is my name with the amount that slowly gets chipped away whenever I make a rare appearance on the island. If you’re ever stuck there and need a book or two, feel free to use my name and the credit yourself. Read on, weary traveler. Anyway, somewhere in purchasing the books from him I got my hands on his copy of “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo.JohnnyGothisgun Of all the books he owned he held this one up to me and said it was one of his favorites and he would love to talk about it after I finished reading it. He passed away before we ever made it to that conversation but I still cherish that copy.

In case you’re not familiar, “Johnny Got His Gun” is the story of a soldier who has been injured in War World 1. He is left with no arms, no legs, no face, blind, deaf and mute. Even his breathing is aided by a machine. His mind however, works perfectly and serves as our narrator. Throughout the book he remembers moments of war and his life before enlisting. In one moment he describes the process of figuring out where he was in the hospital based on the warmth from the sun on his skin and the pattern of his sleep. Trumbo’s book serves as an anti-war novel. I can tell you, by the time I was done reading it, I was so disgusted with harming other human beings I couldn’t use any knife that laid before a meal in the week after. The pondering husk of Johnny was a perfect hero to look towards while distinguishing what I valued in being person who now believed in self preservation.

Looking back, I was fortunate to have that island which was a well suited scene for the existential crises of a young man. One could peer down almost any block in town and see the cold silvery soup of the Atlantic Ocean–a great infinite abyss that churned and hissed in the background of our lives. To the west stirred the Great Egg Harbor Bay with its clean white boats toiling in the shadow of the Ninth street Bridge while superstitious fishermen charmed the tautog and striped bass below them. There was the sand, the water, and the sky. There were questions that would crash against the shores of my frontal cortex over and over. “Who am I?” “What is this life thing?” “Where is the meaning?” The tide always came in and the tide always went out. I’d turn and spot a one legged seagull fight with another bird over a discarded pizza crust. The ocean sent one hundred year old waves born on the other side of the world to curl up, smash, and then sizzle on the sand at my feet. Eighteen years old: a mass of idiotic energy with no clear path to follow, no great understanding of my position to the rest of the world, no conversation to release the pressure valves in my head. A pile of smashed books covered in drywall dust. Unreadable. All their secret forms of meaning, all their subtle movements and hidden symbols completely unknown to me yet rushing all around. A surfer tumbling in darkness underneath the frothing stampede of falling waves.

I was away for a day or two when I got word some changes occurred in the house. I had come home to a new roommate who was my age and had just arrived from an intensive eleven month treatment facility. I don’t know how much you subscribe to the idea of people emanating frequencies or vibes but Josh and I felt dialed into the same one. Before realizing we were both readers, the same age, had the same family structure, were drug addicts in a similar way, and shared the same sense of humor, we were able to share space with each other comfortably and effortlessly much like siblings. Up until our first conversation I remember feeling like an endangered species. Suddenly, over night, there was another one of my kind. A young recovering addict burning with energy, questions and eager to figure out the symbols of his own crumbled library.

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We talked about the books on my nightstand. We talked about the Bob Marley poster hanging on my wall and how music made us feel. We talked about the thirty inch tall Buddha statue which stood by my bed. There were great fears too that circled us the entire time we stayed on that island. Anxieties of relapse and worse, what might actually happen to us if we choose life rather than self destruction. But we shared these things back and forth and suffered them together which offered it own comfort. For me, it felt like the first time talking openly since getting clean months before.

The books that were floating between us, in retrospect, held a common topic that was lost to us because of our youth and ignorance. Josh was finished reading an interesting book called “Conversations with God”

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 In it the author presents a dialog between himself and God. In clear clean prose we are exposed to a dialog between an omnipresent creator and man. Written by Neale Donald Walsch, the book challenges readers to either discard the book as nonsense or spend some time with the ideas and trying them on like new shoes. Josh and I found it hard to get defensive with a book when its main premise is that God, you and everything are one.

A book I had with me that we were passing back and forth was “The Lucifer Principle”. The book is 466 pages of a scientist’s argument and backing research on the origin of evil in the human race and how it stems from our genetics, culture and social groups.LuciferPrinciple The motivation I had to start reading the book came from my romanticisation of the utter doom I felt while using drugs. I started growing fond of villains. I liked the stories of monsters alienated by society. I liked driving my hideously out of date Lincoln at night haunting the quiet suburbs with no destination. Reliving the same day again and again of raising money, going to the city, scoring heroin, doing heroin. Through every sun and moon this nightmare repeated itself. There was also juggling high school, the duties of a son, of a brother, of an employee.

An American boy from down the street becomes a thief and a fiend: a godless predator with sunken eyes, constantly spinning a web of lies trapping the people he loved: who loved him. From the bottom of my heart I believed as much as anything that this way of life was how one truly felt alive, was how one could make each day count, how one could escape the monotonous evil that was always lurking over my shoulder. A jukebox of literary quotes, movie scenes, the choruses of songs would play in my head confirming I was right and good. I’d twist their meanings into favoring this life I chose. It was the sober world that were suckers. Meanwhile, I was a mess of person rotting from denial unable to see. Having occupied and thoroughly romanticised what is was to live outside of society, where did I stand now as someone asking to come back in? Was I good for getting clean and helping myself? Or bad for having been a dope shooting addict? I think Josh felt this moral ambiguity as well. We were both young men being corrected by society. We were taken out of the game and put on the side lines to relearn the fundamentals. We sat on the bench and watched. Where did we fit in? Is what was going on right? Was it wrong?

The books we read showed we were turning to any higher powers for guidance; “Conversations With God”, “The Lucifer Principle”, even Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series which Josh was devouring is about the last great gunslinger traveling to a giant structure at the center of his world that connects multiple universes and could reveal some explanation as to why his world was disintegrating.

One could listen to Josh narrate the way he used drugs and uncover a deep cavern of moral inquiry. Josh lived closely to many of the open air drug markets of South Jersey. But among the constant volley of these substances he was most fond of Dextromethorphan found in cold medicine. In the years to come I’d see him while on this stuff. Sunken in face, eyes protruding out further than normal seeing a world that wasn’t there. He’d approach with a stiff and unnatural gate. In the Oxford House he’d tell me stories of what that drug would do to him. “I thought I was Jesus. Or I would see Jesus in a room made of never ending mirrors. One time, in the middle of a bender, I woke my mom up out bed to tell her I was Jesus and I was going to save the world.”

He would walk the crumbling streets of his home dragging his messiah complex atop his back moving in and out of the orange street lights. He’d find his bed and wake up the next morning with stiff muscles and yellow skin. While on the island, salvation did come for him. It came in abstinence. It came in morning cigarettes, long talks, bussing tables for ends meat, a hundreds of hours of NA meetings in the basements of churches on an island founded by Methodists where every high tide flooded the North end with salt water. But our diseases would catch up to us eventually. We both had about forteen months of solid sobriety while on that island. Despite the books that widened our minds, despite the endless meetings, despite an attempt at step work and the dialogs with our sponsors both of us would eventually relapse. We did it together actually. As they say, when you stop chasing the dragon the dragon turns around and chases you. But the good thing was we didn’t use together very long. We had met in Recovery while we were still genuine men with honest anxieties but still able to laugh deeply. I don’t know about Josh, but it was hard to see him high even while I was. In addition, we didn’t wanna use in the same way. I turned towards heroin and lived out a dozen months of bleary eyes and middle-of-the-night cold sweats while working a catering job. Josh took a job on the docks and worked every night until 11pm then pickled his brain with alcohol and cough syrup until the sun rose in the morning. Eight years went by since then with attempts at sobriety, failing, and kicking heroin again and again.

You see, when I stand over a pile of mangled books covered in drywall dust digesting the embarrassment of my prized library collapsing on my nephew you can understand what I mean when I say, “I’ve felt like this before”, To have broken your brain so much that it no longer makes serotonin and dopamine and because of that everything I ever did wrong or every negative thought I’ve ever had is the only thing I feel exists. The only comforting thought was that if I don’t do any more drugs my brain will heal in four or five days. To be at the bottom looking up and seeing a mountain of work that’ll have to been done until things are stable again. But as with anything it all begins with the willingness to make a single step forward, the first reach upwards out of the hole, the dusting off of a single book and stacking it to the side.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

         PART ONE

The other day I was showing my eleven year old nephew my book collection. A remarkable young man; he had recently shared with me he had read the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and that he wanted to tackle the Iliad. Like a good Uncle/English major I responded thrilled and quickly offered the fun fact that Hemingway believed all American Literature began with Mark Twain and his book “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

So I was showing him my book case. The spring semester had come to an end and I had just finished acclimating my school books into the shelves of my own collection. I have been too sentimental to sell the books back and have an entire shelf dedicated to 11 Norton anthologies all thick enough to stop a round from a .45 at twenty yards away.

On a single shelf I had a stack of books four layers high which I proudly was showing off to my curious nephew. I’m watching a brand new reader standing at the helm of almost two thousand years’ worth of Literature. A young mind about to follow his curiosity on the great journey of communication that will illuminate great vaults of understanding within this confusing world he finds himself living in. On those very shelves rest thousands of characters struggling in their plots ready to inspire him into what it means to have identity, to be human, to be a part of the human race.  His little hand reached for the Norton Anthology of English Literature volume E.

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Bold choice young reader! His curiosity took to him straight for Victorian England. His hand was grasping towards Sherlock Holmes and “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Under his little digits was Emily Bronte’s “No Coward Soul is Mine” and William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”. And as he struggled to pull from the shelf this magical corner of Literature, the wall collapsed in a wave of drywall and books. The anchors in the wall holding up the shelf broke out and the whole thing fell in front of him.

I grabbed him and quickly made sure he was OK. We were both shocked at the sudden destruction. Then him and I began sharing laughter over how proudly I had displayed them just a moment ago and at the first inquiry into them they collapse and nearly crushed us both. We left the rubble just as it was; I put a block of frozen hot dogs on his bruised lip and we went to watch some TV and collect ourselves. Whether he knew it or not, I was embarrassed.

I loved books for a long time. I’ve enjoyed reading, collecting and talking about them. In particularly confusing or helpless times my eyes run across the titles on my shelves like a fortune teller over her crystal ball looking for an answer. I have a copy of “Bartlett’s Poems for Occasions” always in clear sight to thumb through in an attempt to locate a poem that may speak to me. They’ve also been an identity. In a family full of tradesmen, the English major is always the odd man out. But this is what I love in this world and anything else would be a facade. So I pile my books high and show myself off to my nephews and any friends who stop by. The whole thing implodes and I’m sitting there on a couch while cartoons play to the room.

We do that though, don’t we? Find something in this world we love and create an identity around it. Or maybe, the lucky ones have the luxury of doing that. I’m sure the lives of quiet desperation amble past here and there. But for those who can be around the things they love, we certainly can get carried away. Whether it is stacking muscles onto our skeletons, or dropping every last dime into the power or appearance of a vehicle; dressing in the latest fashion, or maybe never mentioning your name without also bringing up your job title. I’ve got my things. English Major, I throw it around here and there. I’m proud of it. In the end its how I relate with people, it’s how I find others from my tribe. But sometimes I need a perspective check like when my mountain of books almost breaks my nephews face and I feel like a fool. It’s jarring.

Books. I put these little collections of paper and ink on high pedestals. They are sacred objects to be taken care of. They keep the secrets of our society, of being human. And if it’s written by one of the great authors, forget it. Heads must bow before cracking open their pages. Then Evan calls me on the phone. Probably my oldest non family relationship, Evan now lives in Florida so nowadays we catch up via telephone. The thing about Evan is he doesn’t give a fuck. Never did. A couple months back he called and started talking about “The Great Gatsby”. Now here is a respectable book. A staple of any American’s high school English class and more recently revisited by Hollywood. The books influence is boundless. When Evan talks loosely and with emotion his South Jersey accent comes out, “I can’t figure out why Hemingway was friends with this guy, (Fitzgerald). I absolutely hated it!” That’s what I loved about talking with Evan. He can talk about Literature like the average Joe could yap about sports, with emotion, confident in his opinions and not taking anything too seriously. Of course when there was something to be said about something in a book he liked, the tone would switch and we’d be articulating back and forth savoring the deep flavors of an author’s craft. But it didn’t matter the book’s history or literary merit. If Evan didn’t enjoy the read, if it didn’t jive with him, well then that was that.

He was always like that though; as far back as I could remember. The way Evan and I met back in sixth grade was pure serendipity. This was the beginning of middle school, the first year where all prior Elementary school students finally gathered and became the sixth grade student population of Williamstown. I was a fat kid. Evan was a fat kid. He took one look at me, I took one look at him and we said, “yeah were gonna be friends.” Easy. And so it was through the years. We definitely were a couple of outcasts. I was reading Dante’s Inferno and probably writing love poems which Evan would offer is usual critic towards, “Dude, What the fuck is that. Don’t share that, please.” And he may have been sporting a Video Game magazine and an antisocial attitude that wasn’t the easiest to get along with. But the thing about Evan even then was that it didn’t matter where society put something or someone, it or they were fair game. I remember some tough guy picked on Evan and snarled, “Fuck you” at him. Without skipping a beat Evan hammered back, “You wish, faggot”. Now I knew Evan, it wasn’t about homophobia; it was about totally diffusing the venom of a bully’s words by using a bigger, funnier, smarter insult to come back with. Without a moment of hesitation he’d cut someone down with humor and skill. To this day I see Evan as a comic genius; his timing, speed, delivery, the content of his humor, absolutely cutting edge and on point.EvanFunny

Just like the popular bullies in the cafeteria, Evan talks back to Literature in a way that is hilarious and refreshing. So I sit with my nephew who is icing his fat lip while a pile of disheveled books sits in my room and I wonder about the unmanageability of this book collection I have. Evan shared with me that he did once measure his reading achievement only by books read completely. Stop in the middle, and it didn’t count for him. The experience was incomplete, obsolete and didn’t matter.

At some point, Evan was reading “Infinite Jest”, a notoriously acclaimed book by David Foster Wallace that’s over 1000 pages long. About 300 pages in he called baffled and said “Why does everybody praise this? I don’t want to read 25 pages about tennis!” And it didn’t matter what society had said about the book. Or even my own opinion on ways one should read a book like that. That was his candid and honest reading response. It was beautiful in its own real and humorous way. More importantly he shook the belief that a half read book was something to be ashamed of. Like getting out a bad relationship instead of drawing it out because of obligation, he moved on just like that.bobnevan

After Evan abandoned his old beliefs of books he shared the conclusion with me that putting a book like that down reminded him he didn’t have to diligently keep reading to become a more qualified reader. He could just read for himself; for fun. He could devour anything that quenched his appetite. He could stop choking down what society told him was worth reading. Since Evan’s shift, he has been more willing to explore and is discovering things on the fringes of the standard canon of Literature. In the end good readers are the same as good runners. The ones who don’t care about the mile marker, heart rate, or their place in the race. The Greats run to feel their breath and to delight in the movement of the human body. Readers, the ones who are free, don’t care who or what it is their reading. Is it entertaining, challenging, deliciously relatable? Do I want to keep my eyes moving forward? Yes? Then good, do so. Life is short. Read on.

INTRO TO PART TWO of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, (Coming Soon)

And so, I look upon this pile of books, this rubble in my room. Books split open with their pages bent and creased. Some stacked on others in unnatural ways that pain the eye to peer towards. It all lays there. Non Fictions bending in reverse underneath the Norton anthologies which are twisting the delicate pages of the smaller paper backs. A heap of tragic angles piled like a mass of broken limbs.

I’ve been here before though. Maybe not staring at a mess of disheveled books but I’ve been on the ground floor of catastrophe.

Fantasy World…

daily-routineWhat is our purpose while we’re alive? Whatever your answer to that question, I think it is fair to say that the majority of people on this earth—myself included—are so immersed in their own bullshit that it has become common practice for us as a society to cultivate it. For most of us, each day is filled with a monotonous routine: wake-up, eat, work, eat, sleep and various activities in between. We are creatures of habit, I’m not here to say whether the routine is good or bad, but almost daily I tell myself, “Change is going to come.” But if I’m really honest with myself, I realize that the kind of change I am hoping for is not going to fall from the sky and land in my bowl of honeycombs.

Over the years, a strange thing has happened to me, I have become the exact thing I was trying to avoid my entire life. As a teenager I loathed the idea of settling down and becoming the average citizen and now I find myself having conversations with people about the weather—complaining about the interest on my student loans. I am a father, I work a 9-5 job, and I drive a Subaru Forrester. 19-year-old me would have told 27-year-old me to fuck off. When I was 19 I recall having a conversation with a close friend in which I described this overwhelming fear I had of living a life that left me feeling empty and sheepish; I called that feeling silent dread. I told him,

“I am terrified of living life and falling into social traps that leave me feeling worthless later in life—where each and everyday I live on the cusp of unhappiness, living each moment satisfied enough to keep going but denying the truth that a silent dread has consumed me and, although the truth is evident, I have zero courage to do anything that might shake me out of this sheepish conformity.”

He understood what I was talking about because he shared the same fear.

Ever since I was a kid I developed this strong ability to enter into a fantasy world andbach_bass escape reality. Often my fantasy world consisted of myself on stage shredding so hard on guitar that the heads of the men in my fantasy audience would explode leaving all the women to be my groupies. I spent hours in worlds like this. As I got older the fantasies evolved into something more along the lines of reality. I began to compare my life to others, imagining their lives to be so much better than my own. When I found out I was going to be a father, fear set in and I began to compare myself. I wrote this in my journal not long after learning of my fate to be a dad:

I see him and know that his dread has not even reached the horizon. He still has hope, he still has hair, and he still has opportunity, potential one-night stands, road trips, and nights alone in self-discovery. I envy him and I pray that he stays free of the burden of the dread. I have fallen victim to the illness of conformity while he lives in hope and the excitement of the unexpected—the freedom of being a young man.

The imagination is a powerful thing and although I thought fate had provided me with misfortune, I was merely crossing a threshold. The moment my baby was born I had this deep overwhelming feeling of change. I knew in that moment that I would no longer be the man I thought I was, and that my life would take new form. I felt, in that moment, the lingering residue of a younger version of myself fall to the floor and wither away. My baby gave me a new purpose and I became a man, but I still had this overwhelming feeling of doing something greater than just providing. I go back and forth in my head sometimes thinking about ways for me to break down the walls of my fantasy world and allow that magically wonderful place to consume my reality. How can I do that? The question is an important one; one I believe we should all attempt to answer. I believe in my heart that there is something to be said about a strong imagination and I think it would be tragic to just let it die.

So, please if you are reading this and you feel anything like I do, I want to hear your thoughts, I want to hear the ways in which you deal with your life, I want to know how you make things better, and I want to know how you live out your fantasies.

Also, some input as to make this blog more accessible  to you is gratefully received.