All posts by david

Choosing Life

The Light That Shines Through Infinity: Zen and the Energy of Life by Dainin Katagiri.  Shambhala.  229 pp.  $16.95.

Jesus’ Son  Stories by Denis Johnson.  Picador.  133 pp. $15.00

It was unnerving for me to read Denis Johnson’s excellent but disturbing book of stories at the same time I was reading the new book of lectures by Dainin Katagiri.  One book was about embracing life just as it is.  In the other people were doing everything they could to run from life.  Johnson apparently had a period of addiction in his early twenties, before he became a productive and substantial writer.  It’s frightening to think that, if he’d continued the way he was going, he probably would have wound up as one more junkie in the gutter.

I read Johnson in the first place because I came across this article on Literary Hub, which spoke of his spiritual life.  Johnson was a lifelong reader of the Bible and of A Course in Miracles, also of the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and he was a regular at AA meetings, which helped keep him sober.  All this reminded me of my old friend Levi, with whom I had many a conversation about addiction.  And it made me want to read Johnson’s fiction, which I’d heard about for years.

I found it painful to read, beautifully done as it is.  Johnson was a superb writer, with vivid sentences and fast-paced stories.  But seldom have had I encountered such a collection of aimless lives, where people die of overdoses, or because someone has shot them (perhaps accidentally) and can’t get it together to get them to the hospital.  I understand that people live this way, and have had my own struggles with obsessive behavior.  But these characters are like those in the first circle of Dante’s hell, swept around in a darkness where they keep moving, but never know why they’re moving or what they’re doing.  The wish to keep moving is everything.[1]

Perhaps most disturbing was the book’s final story, where the narrator is in recovery.  (We assume—at least I assumed—that the narrator throughout the collection is the same person, but we don’t know that.  The cast of characters repeats, as do the locales, including a bar where they all hang out.  But the narrator doesn’t name himself, at least not in every story.)  He was living in Phoenix—the city I’d flown out of as I began the collection[2]—and working on his recovery, caring for people in a rehab facility and understanding that their physical problems were like the psychological problems he faced as an addict.

At the same time he avoided addictive substances, he was spying on a woman that he’d discovered on his way home from work, in an apartment where he could see her take a shower at the end of her day.  She and her husband practiced some religion—“they were Amish, or more likely Mennonites”—and he became obsessed with seeing her naked, also possibly seeing or hearing her make love with her husband.  It’s the kind of obsessive behavior—like drinking or drug taking—that seems to give life meaning and at the very least occupies a great deal of time, so people think they’re living.  Actually, it’s an obsessive avoidance of the stunning reality all around us.

Katagiri describes that reality beautifully in this new book of his lectures, compiled by his student Andrea Martin, who also did the earlier Each Moment Is the Universe.  Katagiri died in 1990, and at the time of his death had published only one book, but there have been three published since he died; he left behind an archive of recorded talks, and people are still working on them.  Andrea Martin in particular has been a faithful steward of his work—she became his student in 1978—and has rearranged talks and simplified them to make them more comprehensible (Katagiri’s English wasn’t great, and his talks could be repetitive and convoluted).

I’ve always thought of Katagiri as a difficult teacher, and was stunned when I came across the first chapter of this book on the Shambhala website and found it almost lyrical, penetrating to the heart of Zen practice.  Some chapters are better than others, but chapter after chapter returns to this lyrical simplicity.  A few paragraphs from the first chapter set the tone.

“Shakyamuni Buddha taught that a magnificent event is unfolding in every aspect of everyday life.  Vivid, living energy is constantly at work, creating and supporting your life.  It is just like a fire that is eternal and boundless.  Whoever you are, your life is very precious because the original energy of life is working in your life.

“We study and practice Buddhist teachings in order to go deep into our own life.  There you discover your original place, the place where all beings live together in peace before we exist as individual beings.  From that place you can join the flow of life . . .

“But whatever you do—Buddhist practice, Christian practice, or nonreligious practice—when you become aware of the magnificent energy of being arising in your body and mind, you feel fully alive.  You are boundless and broad, compassionate and kind.  This is the guideline for living as a human being.”

Somehow, out of the fog of addiction, Denis Johnson got a glimpse of the place Katagiri was talking about, and spent the rest of his life working to stay in it.[3]  His clear-eyed stories are a record of what he’d left behind.

[1] That circle for Dante the of sexual obsessives—it’s where he found his old mentor Bruno Latini, and greeted him with the famous words, “What, are you here?”—but could have been the circle for any addiction.

[2] I finished the book just before we touched down in North Carolina.  I’m not a rapid reader, but it’s a slender volume, quite intense.

[3] As did Levi.

Is That a Promise?

Ruminations on Star Wars: The Last Jedi a film by Rian Johnson.  With Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega.  ***1/2

For the critics who are now active and influential, the Star Wars movies were their first epics, the movies they grew up on and worshiped.  I’m trying to think of what might be comparable in my own life (b. 1948), and I’m not coming up with much.[1]  I do think it’s remarkable that the complete obsession which my son had with the original trilogy (he seemed to know everything about the first movie before it ever came out) seems to have survived intact into the next generation.  My grandson—aged nine—is as obsessed as my son ever was, and the toys which capitalize on this obsession have definitely gone up in price.

I was not in that generation of young viewers who thrilled to the early Star Wars movies.  I was in the generation of fathers who let their children sit in their laps so they could see better, and held their hands during the intense moments.[2]  The thrill for me was seeing how thrilled my son was.  I’d never seen anything like it.

So now we have a new generation of these movies, and this particular one dusts off the old characters as if in a nostalgia trip.  Even Yoda makes an apparently posthumous appearance, with his weird phrasings, which basically sound profound because they’re ass backwards.  (“The greatest teacher, failure is” sounds so much more profound than “Failure is the greatest teacher.”)  And of course Yoda was so cute.  I’ve heard it said that he was partly based on D.T. Suzuki.  There is a weird resemblance.)  Not since George Foreman climbed back into the ring have I seen so many old farts get ready to do battle.  Princess Leia now looks like Grandma Leia, the comparatively young Laura Dern (how the hell did she get in here?) is wearing a scarf to conceal the appearance of her neck, and the hero of the current group of Jedi’s, who is a woman (the place of women in these movies is a major change from the originals) goes up a steep mountain to find an old duffer who turns out to be  . . . Luke Skywalker.  He’s more like Luke UsingaWalker.  (I’m not making fun of old people.  Mark Hamill is three years younger than I.)

Hamill is a fascinating figure in this situation.  I would call him a mediocre actor at best, somewhere between William Shattner and Leonard Nimoy on the great acting scale.  But can he possibly have had any idea, when he became Luke Skywalker—and what a break it must have seemed at the time—how this one role would mark his career?  Has he actually done anything else, I would have said (when I look at his bio, I see that he’s done quite a bit, though mostly just with his voice)?  Not since Al Hodge became Captain Video has an actor been so marked by a role.[3]  In a way it seems he was waiting all these years to get another major role in a movie.  He finally does, and it’s Luke Fucking Skywalker again.

So Rey (Daisy Ridley), who looks tougher and fitter than Luke ever did, climbs a mountain to find the aging Luke Skywalker and get him to come back and join the Resistance against the First Order.[4]  Luke seems to understand that no one man is going to be able to make the whole difference—a way in which the series seems to have matured—or perhaps just knows that a sixty-year old man won’t make the difference.  He lets his young disciple know that the Force—which we’ve been hearing about forever—does not belong to one side or the other, but is a neutral power which can be used for good or ill depending on who comes in contact with it.  I’m glad we got that straightened out.  In the meantime, “Scarface” Kylo Ren[5] (Adam Driver), the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, is still trying to decide which side he’s on, and whether he wants to fight Rey or fuck her.[6]  And Finn (John Boyega) is helping Leia Organa and the rest of the Resistance defend themselves against the villainous First Order, who far exceed them in firepower.

I was thrilled by my son’s love for these movies, and genuinely enjoyed seeing them, while objecting to certain things.  The easy distinction between good and evil, between black (Darth Vader) and white (Obi Wan Kenobi) seemed suitable for little kids but also rather facile and not terribly helpful.  There were good actors in the movies (Alec Guinness wasn’t exactly chopped liver) and good voices (James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, though I prefer to call him Dart Vader), but there was a lot of bad acting as well (Carrie Fisher wasn’t much of an actress.  The fact that she died loaded to the gills with opiods did affect my enjoyment of her appearance in this episode).  And then there’s the gadgetry and special effects.  In some ways I think these things have been the ruination of movies in my lifetime.  There were many times in this film when people were flying around in various space vehicles and I hardly knew who was who or what the hell was going on.  Maybe I’m finally too old to be watching these movies, as some people (I won’t name names) are too old to be acting in them.

Basically the movie is a nostalgia trip.  It’s the same old situation, with many of the same people, and the same thing happens again.  The resistance holds on by their fingernails.  They had to do that.  Otherwise there wouldn’t be a sequel.

I don’t mean to sound like a spoil sport.  I went to the damn thing, didn’t I?[7]  I believe I’ve seen every movie in the series.  I’ll probably go again if there’s another.  But I think it’s time for Mark Hamill to hang up his light saber, and head to that great Star Destroyer in the sky.  He can walk up there, after all.  As long as he can walk at all.

[1] Possibly High Noon.  My father made a point of taking my brother and me to that movie because he wanted us to see that a truly brave man, and a real hero, might also be afraid and nervous in a dangerous situation, in contrast to the Westerns we watched on television every Saturday morning.

[2] My son was so fired up for those early movies that his palms were soaked through the whole thing.  And he was so concentrated that he seemed to have memorized the entire script after seeing the movie one time.

[3] When I was considering what movies might have a comparable place in my life, I mostly came up with TV shows, and Captain Video was at the top of the list.  Poor Al Hodge took that role and basically never got another one, dying alcoholic in 1979.  When I was a boy my brother and I went someplace to get his autograph on a photo.  By the time we got to the front of the line the poor guy was munching a ham sandwich on a hamburger bun and no doubt dying to get the hell out of there.  But I did exchange greetings with the great man.

[4] I know the names of the teams because of the website.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have a clue.

[5] Does the villain always have to have a scar?  Al Capone got this started and we can’t seem to stop.  But Kylo’s deformity is nothing compared to that of the monstrous guy who keeps bossing him around.  There’s a distinct feeling that these people have become villains, and joined the dark side, because they’re so ugly.

[6] Pardon the vulgarity, but I’m making an allusion to a far greater work of art, Raging Bull, in which Jake LaMotta, confronting a pug who was especially good looking, says, “I didn’t know whether to fight him or fuck him.”

[7] My autistic brother in law is a fanatic, but doesn’t like to go to the theater by himself.

Samadhi as a Way of Life

Ramakrishna and His Disciples by Christopher Isherwood.  Vedanta Press.  348 pp. $16.95.  ****

“God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion…One may eat a cake with icing either straight or sidewise. It will taste sweet either way.”

― Ramakrishna, Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna


Those who are proud of their twenty-minutes-twice-a-day or forty-minutes-every-morning meditation practice would do well to read about the great Indian saints, for whom spiritual practice was virtually all they did.  Ramana Maharshi is a good example, or Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, or—perhaps most notably—Ramakrishna.  It wasn’t that he scheduled periods of meditation through the day, or had any particular schedule at all.  He decided as a young man to retreat to life in a temple, and from then on meditation was a way of life for him.  He fell into samadhi at the drop of a hat.

Samadhi for him was not the mild feeling of being settled in sitting that it is for the rest of us.  For Ramakrishna it could be quite incapacitating—his associates sometimes had to hold him up—and might take place in any posture.  Several photos show him in this state, like these (of the seated photo, he said that it would serve as an inspiration for future practitioners, and would be hung in countless practice places).  He might stay in the state for hours or days.  He also entered a different state called ecstasy, when he might sing or dance; in one dancing state, pretty close to the end of his life, he was said to be moving so gracefully that it was as if his joints were rubber.

I grew interested in Ramakrishna when I stumbled across the quote with which I’ve led this article.  More and more in my life, the things I read about different religions seem to be converging.  I assume that others have noticed that the three persons of the Buddha—the Dharmakaya, Nirmanakaya, Sambogkaya—bear a striking resemblance to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the same way that Hindus regard Brahma as the one God, and see other gods as aspects of his personality.  Virtually every religion seems to revere a female figure, whether it’s the Virgin Mary, or the Divine Mother in Hinduism, or the Kwan Yin that Buddhists call on in times of difficulty.

John E. A. Robinson spoke of God not as a being somewhere out there, but as the ground of being, the depth of life, the same way that Buddhists speak of going deeper in meditation, and Hindus fall into deep states of samadhi.  Vedantic practitioners seem to see all of us as manifestations of God in a way, but also see particular people as avatars, people who were fully realized incarnations.  They saw Jesus as one such person.  And there were people in Ramakrishna’s life who declared that he was an avatar.  They sometimes discussed this possibility in front of him, and he listened with deep interest, as if they were discussing someone else.  He didn’t seem to care one way or another.

Ramakrishna himself was famously open to other practices; when one of his teachers for a time was an Islamic practitioner, his Hindu convictions took a back seat for him, and he had a period when he actually practiced Islam, and prayed five times a day.  The same thing happened when he came in contact with a man who first read to him from the Bible.  This incident was the most striking one for me in the entire book.

“Ramakrishna’s thoughts began to dwell on the personality of Jesus.  As it happened, he often took walks to a garden-house which was situated to the south of the Dakshineswar Temple grounds, and rested there; and the parlour of this garden-house was hung with pictures of holy personalities, including one of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus sitting on her lap.  Ramakrishna became especially attached to this picture.  One day, while he was looking at it, he felt that the figures of the Mother and Child began to shine, and that rays of light struck forth from them and entered his heart.  As this happened, he was aware of a radical change in his attitude of mind.  He felt—just as he had felt during the time of his initiation into Islam by Govinda Ray—that his Hindu way of thinking had been pushed into the back of his mind and that his reverence for the Hindu gods and goddesses had weakened.  Instead, he was filled with love for Jesus and for Christianity.  He cried to Kali, ‘Oh Mother, what are these strange changes you are making in me?’, but his appeal did not alter his condition.  And now he began to see visions of Christian priests burning incense and waving lights before the images of Jesus in their churches, and he felt the fervor of their prayers.  Ramakrishna came back to Dakshineswar under the spell of these experiences, and for three days he did not even go into the temple to salute the Divine Mother.  At length, on the evening of the third day, while he was walking in the Panchavati, he saw a tall, stately man with a fair complexion coming towards him, regarding him steadfastly as he did so.  Ramakrishna knew him at once to be foreigner.  He had large eyes of uncommon brilliance and his face was beautiful, despite the fact that his nose was slightly flattened at the tip.  At first, Ramakrishna wondered who this stranger could be.  Then a voice from within told him, ‘This is Jesus the Christ, the great yogi, the loving Son of God and one with his Father, who shed his heart’s blood and suffered tortures for the salvation of mankind!’  Jesus then embraced Ramakrishna and passed into his body.  Ramakrishna remained convinced, from that day onward, that Jesus was truly a divine incarnation.”

Just the fact that Ramakrishna had undergone these experiences would have made him fascinating to me, but when I realized that the great Christopher Isherwood had written a book about him—the man who Gore Vidal said wrote the best English sentences of his generation—I was sold.  Isherwood was himself quite involved in Vedantic practice, and apparently took time off from his novels and screenplays to write this rather long book.  It is, like all of his work, beautifully written.  (I also highly recommend My Guru and His Disciple, which details his own involvement in religious practice.)

I’m fascinated by the way different cultures perceive different religious states.  Indian people believe that these deep states of samadhi exist, and so their great saints experience them, while people from other religions—Japanese Zen and Tibetan Budddhism come to mind—see things otherwise and have no such experiences.  To read about the physical agonies Ramakrishna went through as he got deeper and deeper into his realization is to wonder what Jesus must have gone through in his 40 days in the desert, and to marvel at how functional he eventually became.  Ramakrishna led a largely sheltered existence for most of his life, with various people looking after him at the temple where he presided.  He would talk to anyone who showed up, but didn’t go out and seek people.  He lived pretty much without an agenda, just did whatever came up.

There is always the question, of course, of how we should live the one life we’ve been given: should we live in a cave all our lives, in a constant state of samadhi, or is it better to be out in the world engaging with people?  Ramakrishna did finally touch many people, and seemed completely content with his life.  He was an oddly childlike man, who had a deep understanding of spiritual matters but not much ability to live a practical life in the world.  Eventually, though, a number of disciples gathered around him, and his most famous disciple, Vivekananda, founded an order in his name.  Isherwood writes brief biographies of him and any number of others.  It’s fascinating to see the variety of backgrounds they come from, and the various ways they arrive at this one place.

Ramakrishna developed throat cancer when he was relatively young, at a time and place where there was virtually no treatment for it.  He died at the age of 50.  But as Isherwood points out, he is a saint who didn’t live in the remote past, but at a time (1836-86) when there were historical records, and plenty of people to observe and record his life, as in the massive Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna that one follower put together.  Isherwood does a wonderful job of bringing these accounts together and creating an engaging narrative.  He sees the man as a phenomenon.  There’s no way to explain him.  There are only the accounts of various people who met him, and the words he left behind.

Ain’t Got One

The Shape of Water a film by Guillermo del Toro.  With Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer.  ****1/2

The Shape of Water is a tribute to movies from the fifties, men in suits and fedoras, women in dresses, the Red Menace hovering everywhere, monsters emerging from the deep.  Two of its primary characters, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) live in apartments above a movie theater, and Giles—who is an illustrator—likes to work while watching old movies.

My feeling that it’s a tribute to those movies comes more from the way the whole thing is put together than from specific references (the aquatic creature that eventually emerges is said to come from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but I never saw that epic).  The sets are so quirky and detailed, the scenes so true to our memories of fifties life (the grand empty movie theater, the smelly lurching buses, the diner where Elisa and Giles go for pie), every scene is so beautifully shot, with such care; it is one of those stories that only a movie could tell, it wouldn’t work in any other medium.

Elisa is a nighttime housekeeper at a facility where nefarious research is going on.  That doesn’t need explanation; we’ve seen such places in so many movies from that era that we take it in stride.  But The Shape of Water enters the lives of the characters, so we see Elisa waking every evening before she goes to work, boiling eggs and fixing sandwiches and taking her bath (a place where she regularly masturbates), stopping off to give food to Giles—who tends to neglect such things, and is as nocturnal as she—as she’s on her way to the bus that takes her to work.  We’re not clear at first what their relationship is, though he’s learned sign language to communicate with her; she can hear, though she’s mute.  Eventually we realize they’re close friends, who may have bonded because of their difficulties: Eliza is a sensitive and beautiful woman who can’t speak, Giles a closeted gay man who has lost his job because of alcoholism and is trying to make a living doing work on the side.  They’re part of the nameless hoards who populate a city (in this case Baltimore), living in small cluttered apartments and barely getting by, watching old movies they practically know by heart.

Elisa’s other friend is a black woman she works with, a standout character played superbly by Octavia Spencer.  Zelda has also learned sign language but does the talking for both of them, enough hilarious dialogue—though it’s mostly a monologue—for three or four people.  Like any black woman in the fifties, she’s trying to make money and stay out of trouble, but the women soon find that the research in this place involves an aquatic creature that a researcher named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) has brought from South America.  Like everything else in those days, this discovery has gotten caught up in the Cold War; we have found this creature, and the commies want to get their hands on him, because he might hold clues about the kind of person who can do space travel (?).  Strickland finds out what he can, using torture as a weapon.  Powerful and unprincipled people—as usual—are using the creature for their own purposes.  They’re afraid of it—it’s the Other they’re always afraid of—and fail to see what it actually is in their hope to exploit it.

Elisa does see something in the creature, almost immediately.  A beautiful mute woman is a classic fifties character, in that era when all women were essentially mute; we’ve got the mute woman, the black woman, and the closeted gay man, three characters with no power (we briefly see Strickland having sex with his wife, and one of the things he commands is for her to keep quiet; he’s eventually drawn to Elisa not only because she’s beautiful and seems helpless but because she can’t talk).  Elisa sees something in the monster, but he also sees something in her, or rather doesn’t see something.  “When he looks at me, he does not know – how – I am incomplete. He sees me… as I am,” she signs to Richard.  What begins by her protecting a helpless creature soon becomes a love story, which we completely accept—and were fully expecting—by the time it happens.  The love affair develops in scenes both hilarious and magical, the underwater scenes in particular.

The Commies of course want the creature for themselves; a spy posing as an academic named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) has infiltrated the facility and is studying the creature too, though he recognizes his benign nature and is happy to be part of the plot to free him.  All of these official characters are stereotypes; this is a classic fifties story because we know the characters so well.  But it’s the little people who become the heroes, the movie fans, not the heroes.  (“We’re going to synchronize our watches,” Giles says at one point, “just like they do in the movies.”)  And the medium they work in is water; it’s water that they need to keep the creature alive, to help him escape, and it finally becomes the whole atmosphere, on a night in Baltimore where it’s pouring rain and seems to have been raining for days.  Everything is drenched, including their apartments and the movie theater.

The plot moves through its inevitable questions: will they free the creature?  Get him out of the facility?  Will they finally free him forever?  Along the way we discover things about the creature that we suspected but didn’t know.  And though I never really doubted the outcome—I’ve seen this story before—I was surprised and delighted by what actually happened.  It’s a comic book on the screen, but it’s a comic for adults.

As the movie ends we hear a poem that is as beautiful and mysterious as the whole movie has been, and that no one on the Internet has been able to identify.  Del Toro apparently saw it in a volume of Islamic poetry, and somehow remembered it.  It’s our only clue to the movie’s strange title, but I’m happy to leave the poem, and the title, vaguely mysterious.  “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.”

I don’t think the poet was talking about water.

Problem Solved

Tishomingo Blues from Four Later Novels by Elmore Leonard.  Library of America.  961 pp.  $40.00.

No sooner do I complain about a problem in Elmore Leonard’s work—the fact that every novel seemed to feature a monstrous guy who killed people casually and unnecessarily, as if such people don’t need explaining—than it disappeared.  Tishomingo Blues includes plenty of killing, especially at the end, but just about everybody who dies is a total sleazeball, and I was glad to see them go.  That isn’t necessarily a feature of Leonard’s work; the good guys don’t always win.  But Tishomingo Blues hardly belongs in the Leonard universe; it is set in Mississippi (though some major characters are down there from Detroit); it centers on high divers and Civil war reenactors (?); it is character-centered to an extent that seems unusual even in the later Leonard, and it is once again (this has been happening more and more) ultimately a love story.  In some ways it’s the most interesting of his novels.  It’s a good way to end the Library of America volumes.

Dennis Lenahan, the novel’s protagonist, is an itinerant high diver, a dying breed (pardon the expression) if it ever actually existed.  For a while he dived from the cliffs of Acapulco, but for some time—he’s nearing 40—he has been traveling with his equipment, including a tank that holds nine feet of water and extension ladders that go up to eighty feet.  He finds somebody—in this case a hotel manager, near some casinos—who will hire him as a sideshow, sets up and puts on daily shows.  He dives from various platforms on his ladder, but always, by the end, dives from eighty feet.  When he tells people what the sensation is like, he throws a fifty cent piece to the ground and says that’s the way the tank looks when you’re eighty feel up.  At times he admits it’s more the size of a teacup.  In any case, it’s a feat that’s almost unimaginable.  As soon as he saw somebody do it, he wanted to try, and he’s made a living at it most of his life.  He’s a person that lives on the edge, day after day, like many of the criminals in the Leonard universe.  That’s what he has in common with them.

Not far into the book, Dennis meets another man who lives on the edge, an African American named Robert Taylor, but for a long time we have no idea what the man does.  He’s one of the people who’s down from Detroit—eventually there will be a group of them—and he’s fascinated by Dennis and the nerve he displays, the sheer skill; otherwise it’s not at all apparent what he’s doing in Mississippi or why he keeps talking to Dennis.  His primary skill—and it turns out to be considerable—seems to be a way of talking that keeps people on edge, or a little off balance, keeps them engaged while not giving anything away.  He comes from a violent world, we eventually discover, and may be adept at physical violence, but he seems to have learned to live by his wits.  When—toward the end of the novel—another guy is all set to blow him away with a shotgun, he starts talking.  He keeps talking.  Conversation is his primary weapon.

Dennis when he meets Robert has just seen something unnerving.  From his perch on the 80 foot platform, he has seen a couple of guys take away the workman who helped him rig up the ladder and apparently murder him (the one casual killing in the book, I admit.  But it’s more or less done off stage, and it’s eighty feet down; we barely see it).  The guy was a grifter who was recently out of prison, walked around with a pint of Maker’s Mark in his back pocket, but he apparently set up the ladders well.  Dennis was a witness to the crime and the two men who committed it know that; they were ready to take him out on the spot, but another guy shows up and makes them leave.  Eventually they let Dennis know he’s living on borrowed time.  If he says a word to the authorities they’re taking him out.

I have to say that, as a person with a serious fear of heights, whose greatest diving feet was a cannonball from the one meter board, I find the idea of high divers fascinating.  A whole host of people agree; many locals attend Dennis’ daily shows, including a number of women who want to know him.  He’s not a macho person; he actually likes and is interested in women, especially the youngish women who are divorced with a couple of kids and are looking for a man who might stick around.  His slightly plumpish landlady takes a shine to him, as does a local woman newscaster, also the wife of one of the sleazeballs.  Dennis is interested right back, and seldom spends a night alone.  Eventually he falls in love.

I’m less interested in Civil War reenactment; I don’t understand the fascination that many people seem to have for this activity, or why Elmore Leonard was so interested in it, to the point that he knew multifarious details of various battles that took place in that part of Mississippi.  An elaborate battle reenactment is at the heart of this story, with a few people playing with real bullets, because they’re involved in drug deals and various other nefarious activities.  We’re aware for much of the novel that such a showdown is coming, right in the midst of all the make-believe carnage.  When it does, though, it plays out in a totally unexpected and almost comic way.  It involved killing, but I have to admit I enjoyed the scene.  It was not what I expected.

There is another scene at the end—the aforementioned one where a guy is holding a shotgun on Robert Taylor—where a man who has never even fired a pistol figures out how one works and shoots a guy across the room, killing him with one bullet.  I’m not sure I quite believe that, though by that time we’re pretty safely in the land of make-believe, where guns are going off all the time and you never know what the hell’s going to happen.  I by that time was more interested in the love story, and in the characters of Robert and Dennis, who have an odd friendship and a strange fascination with each other.  They think for a while of pairing up, but decide eventually to stay in their own domains.  They’re two of Leonard’s least predictable and most subtle characters, and for me they make the novel one of his best.  He published it at age 77, still going strong.

Who You Really Are (You Knew All Along)

Coco a film by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina.  With Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach.  *****

I went to this movie as an act of desperation.  Every day I read in the New York Times about the marvelous movies that are arriving for the holiday season and the great reviews they’ve gotten, and every weekend I look at the listings and see the same old things.  I’ve seen Lady Bird and Three Billboards.  They were great.  I’m waiting for the holiday movies, but they keep not getting here.

I also must admit that I have a prejudice against children’s movies and animation in general.  My knee-jerk reaction is that I want to see a movie that is “real” (whatever that is), despite any number of good experiences watching animation with my grandchildren and even just with my wife, who doesn’t share my prejudices.  Maybe Coco will get me over the hump.

It’s a marvelous movie!  Great story line, beautiful scenes of a Mexican town, a wonderful appreciation of Mexican culture.  And the animation itself: every time I see good animation I’m stunned.  I don’t know how people do this.  It’s like reality but it’s also like a cartoon.  It’s better than reality.  It’s the filmic equivalent of Magic Realism.

Miguel is a boy who lives in a family of shoemakers that hates music.  It may not be that everyone really hates it, only Mama Imelda (Miguel’s grandmother) whose own mother, Mama Coco, was abandoned as a child by a father who went off to become a musician.  Her life was supposedly ruined by this event, though she seems to have done all right, and is still around, plump and wrinkled and sitting in a wheelchair, her mind almost gone.  Miguel has an undeniable feeling that he doesn’t belong in this family, because he loves music and longs to become a musician.  His fight with the whole family over this situation is the basis for the plot.

In a way it is that age-old story, actually a fantasy of many children, that they have been born into the wrong family.  The story is a gradual discovery that he’s in the right family, where he was meant to be: that’s the story of all human growth.  This is also a movie about family, perhaps one that could only take place in a Latino family, where multiple generations still live together in one place, in a town that looks run-down but seems to have everything they need.  It’s a little paradise in a way, a place where they can all be together and love each other, even if loving sometimes means fighting with and hurting one another.

It’s also, in a fairy tale kind of way, a movie about death.

That’s because it takes place on The Day of the Dead, the evening every autumn when families create altars and put out offerings for the spirits of family members to return.  There is a talent show that night where Miguel is hoping to prove to the family that he is a musician and should be allowed to pursue his dream.  His only problem is that his grandmother has found his guitar and, in a fit of anger, smashed it.  He has to find another one.  He finally does so at a shrine to Mexico’s most beloved musician, Ernesto de la Cruz.

Miguel’s act of thievery transmits him somehow to the spirit world, the place from which all the family members will be coming that night.  He has another whole family there, all of whom know him—from their previous visits—and all of whom he knows, because of the family shrine and the stories he’s been told.  He believes he needs to find the spirit of Ernesto de la Cruz, who can justify his love of music.  On the way he runs into a stumblebum musician named Hector who claims to know de la Cruz, and who is willing to help.  For a favor.

Spirits can only return on the Day of the Dead (actually the night of the Day) if their photos are on someone’s altar.  There is a kind of immigration office which checks up on such things.  And spirits only stay alive as long as someone remembers them.  After that, they disappear.  No one knows what happens to them.  Hector is desperate to get his photo on an altar, and to contact one living person while he is still, even a little bit, remembered.  He seems to be a con-man, and an impediment to Miguel.  He turns out to be anything but that.

I don’t know where this story came from (on the IMDb website, it is credited to four different people (?), only one of whom has a Mexican background).  It is a classic story that is worthy to be set beside the greatest fairy tales.  It creates a whole mythology about life, death, and family which—though it is obviously fantasy—rings true.  The way it ends seems profoundly true as well.  It’s the story of a boy discovering who he really is, which turns out to be what he thought he was all along.  He needed to trust what he deeply believed.

I’ve been talking the movie up ever since I saw it.  I can’t believe I almost didn’t see it.  It’s once again made me a believer about animation.  And it helped me see that some children’s stories far transcend what they seem to be about.  They speak to the parents too.

My Elmore Leonard Problem

Out of Sight from Four Later Novels by Elmore Leonard.  Library of America.  961 pp. $40.00.

I’m coming to the end of my Elmore Leonard period.  I never thought, when I decided to look into his Detroit novels because my son now lives in Detroit and I’ve gotten to know the place a little, that I would wind up reading three thick Library of America volumes and be eager for more (though there isn’t any more.  Leonard wrote other novels, but I think the LOA has located the best of them, and really, enough is enough).  I’ve looked forward to my evening of reading every day when I’ve been reading Leonard.  I can’t say that about any number of more highfalutin writers.

The man was a phenomenon: coming out of Detroit and writing just because he felt like it, picking genre novels because he thought he could do that, getting hooked up with a failing genre (Westerns) and switching without missing a beat to another (crime fiction), continuing to grow as a writer for his entire career.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this third volume is the best.  It certainly includes some of his best known works.  His writing is plain and straightforward but not pedestrian, and any young writer who wants to learn how to tell a story could do a lot worse than exploring Leonard’s work.  I’m constantly stunned at how well he tells a story.

My problem is that most of the books, especially the later ones, include moments like this one.

“Maurice turned his head to Glenn.  ‘This is the gentleman I was telling you about use to be a customer, to wear a suit and comb his hair; hell, use to be Frank, this scarecrow, Frankie and his lovely wife Inez.  See what scag can do to a person?  Now then, so we don’t have to tear up your nice home,’ Maurice said, ‘get out the green from where you hid it.  I’m gonna say forty fifty thousand and it’s in this room.  Frankie?  Pay attention.  You’re gonna have to tell me where it is before I count to three.  You ready? . . . One two three.”  Maurice raised the .45, put it on Cedric and shot him in the head.  The impact sent him against the file cabinets and he seemed to hold on before sliding to the floor.  Maurice stepped over to him and Glenn thought he was going to shoot him again, but all he did was stare at him—until Frankie spoke and Maurice looked up.

“’You’ve been wanting to do him, haven’t you?  Shit, you came to do him.’

‘You think so, lets’s try Inez,’ Maurice said, turning to her as he raised the .45.  ‘Ready for the count?’”

I understand what most people would say about such scenes, especially most readers of crime fiction.  They’re a convention of the genre.  They don’t mean a thing.  It’s not real people getting shot and dying.  It’s like actors on a stage.  The problem is—and this is a compliment to Leonard—that he makes them into real people, often with a few deft touches.  These may just be heroin addicts, but they’re human beings.  And a man who would take their lives like this, casually, as if he were patting somebody in the back, is a monster.  But Leonard doesn’t treat him that way.  He treats him as just another crook, the way he treated petty grifters in the early Detroit novels.  A shooting in those early books was a rare thing, and not what the criminal intended.  The later novels (I haven’t looked back to see where this trend begins) all contain a monster.

I don’t think I’m naïve.  I don’t move in crime circles, to be sure, but I have worked with and visited inmates, and at present I visit Death Row once a month to meditate and talk with inmates.[1]  I know there are people like Maurice in the world.  But if you’re going to write about them, I think you should explore them, try to discover what makes them tick.  They shouldn’t just be like furniture, or stock characters.  They’re too awful.

Out of Sight is not about Maurice.  It’s about a bank robber named Jack Foley and a U.S. Marshall named Karen Sisco, who come in contact with each other first when Jack is escaping prison and she just happens to be there, so he takes her hostage and rides in a car’s trunk with her, and remain fascinated with one another even while Jack is continuing to rob banks and Karen continues to pursue him.  It’s not that they’re in love with each other, exactly, but they kind of are.  At the very least they’re erotically fascinated.  Jack, I would have to say, is a little more of a sentimentalist than Karen.  It’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet story of star-crossed lovers, a tour de force, almost as if Leonard wrote it on a dare, and is a good candidate for his best novel, also for the best movie made from his work.  The movie starred George Clooney as Jack and Jennifer Lopez as Karen.[2]

I love the book.  And I understand that menacing characters like Maurice give it an air of danger that it wouldn’t otherwise have.  But human life is precious, seems more precious the older I get, and I hate to read about someone taking it casually.  There’s nothing casual about it.[3]

[1] I’ve mentioned this before, but the men on Death Row don’t seem to be monsters.  They seem to be ordinary people who somehow wandered into a bad situation, sometimes a series of them.  And the ones I’ve talked to are deeply regretful about their crimes.  They’re haunted by them.

[2] Three of the four novels in this volume were made into movies, and I don’t know what they’re waiting for on the fourth one.  Get Shorty is the other candidate for the best movie made from a Leonard novel, with Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, and John Travolta.  And Rum Punch became the Quentin Tarrantino movie Jackie Brown.

[3] The ultimate answer is not to read crime fiction, and I normally don’t.  But I had fond memories of those early Detroit novels, which weren’t as brutal as the later ones.  And I was captivated by Leonard’s talent.

Nights of Terror

Seven Days of One Long Moment

The question—which I’ve asked on this website before—is: what is the nameless dread that I feel before sesshin begins, the fear that periodically grips me in the pit of my stomach?  What am I afraid of?

I seemed to have less of it this year.  I had uneasy moments, but didn’t have the three weeks of heavy dread I usually do.  I had a lot of responsibility in this sesshin—I was the Director and the Ino—but had plenty of time and was well-organized.  I didn’t have a difficult sitting in the first three days, even in the late afternoon, my usual difficult time.  But on that third night—Monday night, after starting on Friday—I woke up at 2:00 in the morning with a terrific panic attack, my heart pounding, breathing shallow and ragged—the more I tried to deepen it, the worse things got—my body rigid with tension.

There was no particular thought content—I wasn’t thinking about how hard sesshin was—but seemed to be having a medical emergency, kept thinking, Oh my God, what are they going to do without me?  The list of doans was skimpy as it was.  I got up to walk into the bathroom and see how I looked (dreadful, in a word, my face a mask of fear) and by the time I returned my wife was awake.  She took my hand—“Your hand’s clammy,” she said—and I started to shake.  It was uncontrollable, like the worst chills of my life.  “You’re discharging,” she said.  “This is good.  This is great.  You need to get rid of this tension.”  She continued to hold my hand, gave it a little squeeze.  “Isn’t it fun?”

Her lighthearted attitude was helpful, and she was completely right in what she was saying.  But no, fun was not the word I would have used.

I shook uncontrollably for five minutes.

Perhaps I’d somehow suppressed my fear for weeks—I certainly didn’t mean to—and now it was coming back with a vengeance.  Or perhaps I’d been holding things together on sesshin when what I needed to do was let go.

(I might mention that I’m not the only person ever to have such an experience.  And while you’re reading that article, you should check out this one, one of my all-time favorites.)

I was ten years old when I had my first taste of this terror.  That was when my spiritual journey began (I was a precocious lad).  I had a period of time at that age when I couldn’t sleep, began to ask myself the unanswerable questions that I’m still asking today: what is life?  what is death? What happens when we die?  I’d been taught that I would go to heaven when I died, and always pictured myself hanging out with my family, mostly my grandmother, my favorite family member.  I imagined us sitting around talking in some sylvan setting.  But one night I suddenly asked myself: what the hell would we talk about, after the first twenty minutes or so?  What would we say?  We’d be there for eternity?  What would we do?

I pictured myself as a disembodied spirit (though I would have looked exactly the way I did as a fat little ten year old.  Actually, come to think of it, let’s take about fifteen pounds of unsightly flab off that spiritual body) who could take off and sail through the cosmos, but that didn’t seem so great either.  The universe was infinite; there was no end to it.  You just kept going and kept going?  How did you get back?  Where was back?  Where was home?  How did you find your way around, when there was no limit to anything?  Infinite time, infinite space, it all suddenly seemed horrifying.  Heaven wasn’t looking too good.

A few years later, when I read Pascal and his most famous quotation—“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me”—I thought, Hey man, I know what you mean.

It was actually quite helpful to know someone else felt that way.  (He was also the man who said, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”)

I think that’s what we’re facing when we sit zazen, especially in sesshin.  That vast, eternal, infinite moment, all day long.  There’s a three hour stretch at the end of the afternoon, as the day is waning, that is especially intense for me.  I dread that part of the day the most.

Yet I continue to sit sesshin because it makes my daily difficulties much lighter.  The fears I feel about other things seem much diminished after I’ve faced these larger questions.  Sesshin makes my life better, I have no doubt.  And there’s no avoiding the unanswerable questions.  That vast eternal moment is where we live.  We fill our days with mindless busyness, but sooner or later we stop and notice.

I had a sudden realization this year—not long before sesshin began—that all those means of avoidance, sex, drugs, and rock and roll (whatever combination of those things you like) were not really what I wanted.  What I wanted was whatever practice focuses on, unity with what is, with my deepest self, unity with God.  I could see clearly that, when I’d thought I wanted to connect with a woman, the thing I really wanted was much larger.  I used to think of meditation as something I did to moderate my bad habits, keep me from running amok.  Now I see it wasn’t a cure for anything.  It was the thing I actually wanted.  Even if I am sometimes afraid of it.

It is in this sense, I think, that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

Time is a What?

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  Anchor Books.  340 pp.  $16.00. *****

I’m aware as a writer that many people I read are more talented than I, but now and then I’m pulled up short by a writer who does something I couldn’t even aspire to.  I felt that way about War and Peace when I was in college: no matter how long I lived, or how long I wrote, I would never see all that Tolstoy did, much less put it down on paper.  The Sound and the Fury struck me the same way, not just because of the marvelous writing, but also the astonishing technique.  Where did something like that come from?  I’m putting Jennifer Egan in some rarefied company, but I felt the same way about A Visit from the Good Squad, reading it with a feeling of utter astonishment.  And I did something with this novel I’ve seldom done with any other.  I finished it one night and sat down the next night to start over again.  It was better the second time.

If the novel is about anything—other than the dizzying complexity of life itself—it’s about a teenage rock band that we meet in the third section, one of those high school bands that was around for a while, then disappeared.  Two members of the band, Bennie and Scotty, become important for the story as a whole.  Bennie—who in the band was a terrible bass player—soon realizes that his real future is as a music producer, and attaches himself to an older mentor named Lou, who shows up in another section as the lover of a teenage girl.  And Scotty, a slide guitar player and the best musician in the band, soon disappears from view altogether, though he eventually emerges as the novel’s most important character.

I locate the novel’s center in that band despite the fact that Jennifer Egan herself, in talking about its genesis, spoke of a purse she saw somewhere with a wallet showing, wondering what would happen if a compulsive thief saw that.  The novel begins with that moment, a young woman named Sasha—a valued assistant to Bennie in his career as a music producer—seeing the wallet in a woman’s rest room and taking it.  She has a problem with such behavior, will nearly get in trouble on that occasion and will eventually loses her job because of it.  We see Sasha in another section as a renegade teenager who has fled the country with a rock singer, then bummed around for several years in Europe while her parents wondered frantically where she was, and eventually meet her again—in what is possibly the novel’s most inventive section, a teenage girl’s power point presentation—as a middle-aged married woman with two teenage children, one of them autistic.  (When I read somewhere that one chapter in this book was a Power Point presentation, I cringed.  I hate Power Point presentations.  But I found it one of the most moving chapters in the book.)  The autistic boy, like many people in the novel, is obsessed with rock music, especially with the pauses in songs, the moments when they seem to be over but then continue (a good example is the Four Tops marvelous “Bernadette”).

In a way it seems ridiculous to say that any character is central in this story, or most important; every chapter is a separate story, completely satisfying in itself.  But if a theme emerges from the novel as a whole—and for me one did—it is authenticity vs. its opposite, whatever you want to call that.  Fakery, I suppose.  Bennie, in his career as a music executive, desperately tries to stay true to the music that he loved when he was young, but he is going against the grain of the culture.  Scotty, I would say, is the one person who stays completely authentic.  To do that he almost drops out of the culture altogether.

For me the most electrifying single chapter was when Scotty—working as a school janitor in New York, and fishing in the East River to supplement his diet—realizes while reading a magazine he swiped from a newsstand that his old friend Bennie is an important person in the music world, and shows up at his office with a striped bass that he caught in the river, offering it as a gift (there are striped bass in the East River?).  Scotty, on the one hand, seems slightly nuts, but in another way is the most realized person in the novel.  He is the proverbial man who lives against the grain and therefore looks crazy, but it’s the culture all around him that is crazy.  Scotty sees the world through different eyes, is stunned by the beauty of Manhattan as seen from Bennie’s office, and he makes an amazing statement about his own situation.  “I understood what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park.  In fact, there may be no difference at all.”  The novel burst open in that chapter for me.  It went from being very good to great.

Scotty also appears in the novel’s final chapter, along with Bennie again.  That chapter seems to occupy space in an imagined future (though I’m not sure; it seems uncomfortably close to the present).  It would be unfair to go into much detail, but it is in that chapter that the theme of authenticity vs. fakery emerges most clearly.  (When a character asks Bennie what has happened to him that he is so far from where he wanted to be, Bennie says, “You grew up, Alex, just like the rest of us.”  What a world, where growing up involves abandoning our sincerity.)

In that earlier chapter with Bennie—the one where Scotty shows up with his fish—someone or other expresses the opinion that “Time is a goon.”  I honestly have no idea what that statement means, though it somehow sounds right, and is the only hint about the novel’s odd title.  Linear time has no place in this novel.  The narrative jumps around at will.  But there’s something deeply moving about the way these characters completely change through time and also stay the same.  They just are what they are at any given moment.  But that’s not unrelated to other things they’ve been, and will become.[1]

[1] For another statement of this same truth, we can consult Zen master Eihei Dogen: “Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is after and the firewood before. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes before and after and is independent of before and after. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes before and after.”

Bitch on Wheels Careens out of Control

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film by Martin McDonagh.  With Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges. ****1/2

If I could sue a trailer for false advertising, I would sue the one I saw for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri, which seems to promise a hilarious comedy in which Frances McDormand releases her inner bitch and raises hell with a screwed-up police department.  It looked like one of those jaw dropping roles that only Frances McDormand could do.  In a way this is that movie, at least in places.  But the easy fun is over after about fifteen minutes.  The movie that’s left is much deeper, more serious, and more compelling than that.

Mildred (McDormand) has plenty of reasons to be angry, and to have bought billboards advertising her grievances.  Not only was her daughter raped and murdered and burned beyond recognition, on a road within view of their house, but her abusive wife-beating husband has subsequently left her for a nineteen year old bimbo, her son is furious that she has put up these billboards that remind him of what happened to his sister, the whole town is sympathetic with Mildred because of what happened to her daughter, but sides with Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in the billboard dispute, because of a serious mitigating factor.  Everybody seems to be against her, but she rages on.

Screenwriter and Director Martin McDonagh apparently chose Missouri because the state is associated with racially prejudiced police departments; the movie was actually filmed around Sylva, North Carolina.  Mildred pointedly baits the police department about race.  And the department, as represented by an officer named Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is spectacularly brutal and inept; Dixon’s idea of justice is to hit a beat a guy with a club, punch a young woman in the face, and throw the guy out a second story window, even though he hasn’t committed a crime.  Even in a conservative Southern town, that seems a little over the top.

McDonagh is playing with stereotypes, as he has done in his previous films.  If Dixon seems like a hillbilly hick, his mother—with whom he lives—makes him look like a British Earl.  But every time we think we know which side we’re on, McDonagh throws us a curveball.  The police chief we’re supposed to hate is seriously ill.  He also makes a pretty good case for why he hasn’t solved the crime.  Mildred is angry because of the way she’s been treated but also apparently feels guilty because of the way she sometimes treated her daughter, especially—by a cruel coincidence—on the last day of her life.  Her ex-husband is going out with a nineteen year old but the woman herself is rather sweet, and doesn’t deserve Mildred’s scorn.  And when the time comes to replace the sheriff, the powers that be in Missouri—by some miracle—appoint a tough-assed and articulate black man.

This is one of those movies that held my wife and me enthralled the whole time we watched it; it was only at dinner afterwards, when we started talking, that we had some questions.  Willoughby’s wife is a young beautiful intriguing character, but you do wonder how she happens to be married to a much older police chief in Ebbing, Missouri.  The way Willoughby handles his illness makes sense in one way, and certainly thickens the plot, but in another way it seems off the mark and utterly selfish, not what this man would do.  Mildred is mean to people even when she shouldn’t be; the scene from the preview where she kicks a couple of teenagers in the nether regions seems over the top, and certainly won’t help her son’s standing at high school.  And the one real suspect in the crime shows up out of the blue and acts in ways that don’t make sense.  The way the police discover him is coincidental beyond belief.

The movie finds its ultimate meaning in the final scene, when two characters go off to take revenge, and see justice done.  The fact that the two of them are even together speaks volumes, and makes forgiveness and understanding the other side the focus of the film.  It is like an earlier scene in a hospital between a burn victim and the guy who was thrown out the window.  The characters may be stereotypes, but they also learn things, and change.  Not all cops are corrupt, even a corrupt cop isn’t totally rotten, and a woman treated horribly by life doesn’t have the right to kick just anybody in the balls.  The moral complications and the ambivalent ending make this the most intriguing of McDonagh’s films.