Smile Politely

A destination that time forgot

Still ailing, I picked up the yellowed copy of Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen on my night stand, one of a dozen or so books I have been tripping back through lately. Gone are the days of rapt attention and absorption by a single publication, the world being too much with us, coming at us from all dimensions, and too soon.

(Alan Watts, City Lights Books, 1959, 75 cents)

I don’t recall sleeping until 3 p.m. ever before in my life. Maybe this is only a toothache, or sinusitis, or unseasonably premature hay fever, or changes in the dawns and twilights of the time change. Maybe it’s the snus, ordered from Sweden, causing some infection inside my head, or so my aching brain frets with a fertile negative imagination.

From the bed, I can see across the room my brown leather wall hanging, etched by soldering iron, a precise and careful reproduction of the smoking Mayan curandero, an exact replica of the priest image carved on the rain-forest ruins at Palenque. I haggled with the merchant in the village for it in 1990 and now regret that I surely had cheated the man of his due. Such craftsmanship. The image would make a fine tattoo, but is too intricate to translate onto flesh.

Back to “Zen.” No quotes really stand out, but I do like the conclusion: “If you really want to spend some years in a Japanese monastery, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn’t. Or if you want to spend your time hopping freight cars and digging Charlie Parker, it’s a free country.”

A quaint notion, either way. Try hopping a freight. Or even hitchhiking. All the destinations of the world went up for rent sometime during the Reagan era. In Watts’ day, one even could embark toward that elusive landscape of enlightenment. Eastern philosophies were esoteric, for beatniks and weird adventurers. There weren’t yoga centers on every other corner.

Quotes abound in another exhilarating read, Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. I downloaded it within minutes after reading a review. Dyer wades into and digresses throughout his parsing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker as though the movie were a dream chart of his own personal obsessions.

(Geoff Dyer, Pantheon Press, 2012, Kindle edition $13)

“Do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action if I was capable of writing anything else?” Dyer asks. He makes Tarkovsky’s landscape seem like an undiscovered place, earthly and unearthly, worthy of a quest. The film begins in black and white, a Soviet era urban recycling plant, and, when the Stalker arrives in the The Zone, turns to a lush and fertile, full color rainforest.

Everything, and nothing, is there. Nothing, a very zen concept in itself, recurs as the theme of the movie. The character known as The Writer asks, “What should one write about? One should write about absolutely nothing.”

Dyer compares the idea to Flaubert’s desire to write “a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing for its support.”

“Compared to content-driven Hollywood cinema,” muses Dyer, “this sounds like a reasonable prediction of what Tarkovsky would achieve.”

I don’t think I have a fever. The heat from this microwaved rice bag — thoughtfully provided by Lee in nurse mode — does appear to be relieving my clogged sinuses, if that is where the problem lies. I need a good placebo. I believe.

From the computer on my bed, I send an email to Henry in California. “I need a destination,” I type. “Take me to the desert.”

I once did a graduate research multi-media piece on nothingness, which included compiling all pop rock references to nothing I could find. The Velvet Underground, “Sunday Morning”: “It’s nothing at all.” The Fugs: “Monday nothing, Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing.” Dylan: “When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. You’re invisible now.”

Another kind of journey, Tripping also sits on the night stand. I’ve been paging through it for weeks. It contains an irrepressible interview with the late psychedelic shaman Terence McKenna. “We’re awakening as a planet to the very good news that all ideology is parochial and culturally defined, like painting yourself blue or scarifying your penis,” he told an interviewer from his home on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1998. Someone should inform political candidates and evangelical ministers, not that there is much difference.

Four years ago, I fled the country before the general election, no longer capable of swimming through the barrage of bile and lies, a landscape of the mind worse than a Soviet era urban recycling plant. This year, same thing. I must go.

“When man began to speak and recall, the conquest of the fourth dimension — time — was under way. In 4D it’s all present. All books can be read without opening them.”

(Charles Hayes, 2000, Penguin Compass, $18)

Of course, there is no earthly escape. It’s curious to have been re-reading the 1961 cult science-fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, which I picked up again because I discovered it on David Foster Wallace’s list of his favorite books. I’d forgotten how sexist and naive and repressed things were back then, and Heinlein’s saga of new age and free love philosophy, brought to earth by a Christ-like Martian, certainly predicted the decade to follow. But today it reads creakily and naively sexual, not the revelation it seemed decades back. Mostly, all that’s left is the concept of “to grok.”

(Robert Heinlein, 1961, Putnam Publishing Group, $3.95)

My illness demands a vision. A vision quest. I should walk through the desert and remember. 

Time to sleep again. Here I am, still in bed, typing on an already antiquated netbook, putting words in the cloud, reading books without opening them, wearing a microwave rice bag, while Lee and Ernie are downstairs watching The Walking Dead.

Ernie asked the other day, “What would you do in case of a zombie attack?”

“Doubt my sanity,” I replied.

“That’s all?” he says.

The helicopter from Carle hovers outside the window overhead. The cat on the bed, Whitman, looks toward the ceiling. The heat from the rice bag brings sweat to my brow, but it feels good. Maybe I can induce a hypnogogic trance.

I glimpse through some old netbook notes.

A week ago I wrote, “My life has begun to flash before my eyes, just like they told me would happen when I die, only in slow motion, over the period of months leading up to this coming December.”

A week from now, I either remember or have just now decided, I am going to the desert, to grok the future and scout the past and discover nothing more.

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