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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Losing and finding yourself in a good book.

I finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on the bus on the way home today. The protagonist and narrator of the story is an autistic teenager. The prose is hypnotically written so that you find yourself falling through the looking glass into his world of counting cars by their color, reciting prime numbers, rocking and moaning and trying to shut out the overwhelming sensory stimulus bombarding you from every direction you look. I was kinda glad nobody else was home yet when I walked in the door. It gave me a chance to decompress from work and convince myself that I really wasn't mildly autistic.

It's not the first time I've found myself so caught up in a book that I felt I was taking on characteristics of characters. I remember in junior high reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlen and feeling freaked out for a while. Even wrote a book report on it. Probably got the book removed from the library of my conservative Church of Christ affiliated private school. There's some fairly blasphemous stuff in the book (especially if you're easily offended), not to mention a healthy dose of sexuality. I remember one weird sequence where a character dies then remanifests and makes a soup out of part of his own body for his mourning friends to eat. Can't remember much more, but then, it's been over 20 years since I read the book.

Murakami transforms me as well. Reading his prose with it's simple structure and rhythm feels like meditation. Your breathing slows, your body and mind are depressed -- in the sense of taking a depressant, not in the sense of suffering from a deep sorrow. But there is a soothing form of melancholy to his writing. It reminds me of winter days in college when I went down to the riverfront park in Memphis and stood on the edge of the bluff staring out over the whitecapped currents of the broad Mississippi, feeling a cold wet wind blowing hard in my face. I went there to leave things behind. Things I wanted to forget. Things about myself I wanted to exorcise. I can't say that it worked. Not sure that there ever was anything I tried to cast out of my heart and soul that drowned in the muddy Mississippi. Demons are damn good swimmers. But I was successful in setting up an Ebenezer of formative angst. Ebenezer in the Biblical sense - a stone memorial set up by the children of Israel in locations where God did something miraculous in the life of the tribe. Interesting concept: find some great honking chunk of rock and stand it up where it doesn't belong so you inspire future generations to ask "what in the hell is that there for?" And then you tell them. Oral tradition. A precursor to blogging?

I guess we all want to tell our stories and at least pretend that somebody out there might read them. Somebody out there might be transformed, moved, altered by the words we express. We hope language really is a virus. We share our thoughts, hoping to infect another with our literary disease and pass ourselves on. You'd think having children would satiate this desire to recreate ourselves, but maybe it makes the desire more earnest.

Our mind recognizes traces of our physical self passed on to another and that causes it to long to find itself reflected somewhere, in an audience, a reader, a disciple. Or in the least, a comment to a post. ;)
The following is something I wrote a few months ago based on an interaction I had with a man on the bus.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Marvin just got out yesterday. He said he was riding to Madison. That’s where he’s "stayin" these days. He started this conversation with Vietnam, but now he’s worked his way around to the halfway house. Each stop on the route seems to reveal a new layer of the onion. He was in 'Nam from the time I was born till I was three. I was oblivious. I remember being surprised when I was a teenager to realize we were at war when I was a kid. Now I find myself trying to make sure my 5 year old daughter knows as little as possible about Iraq. We don’t watch the TV news much. Guess my parents didn’t either. Before I had kids I remember a co-worker saying he’d let his kids watch just about everything except the evening news - gave ‘em nightmares. Nice reality we’re living in.

Marvin wasn’t much more than a kid when he was in 'Nam. Three months from finishing his tour of duty - 20 years old - when he was shot to pieces. Spent 4 months recovering in Saigon and the rest of his life trying to forget. Overcast rainy days like this one the shrapnel wakes him up at 4 or 5 in the morning, so he watches TV. Old Harrison Ford flick was on. The one where he hides out with the Amish to protect the little kid who witnessed a murder. That’s the first R-rated movie I saw at a theater. Snuck in with John W. and two girls who’s names I can’t even remember on a double date. John asked out Jamie something or other who I’d rather been with If I ever had the nerve to ask a girl out, but instead I was fixed up with her friend (Melissa?). Sitting there awkward and nervous and scared to death of the opposite sex as J & J made out in one seat next to us and I tried to figure out whether it was more embarrassing to watch them or Kelly McGillis sponging off topless on screen - the world’s first Amish pinup.

Marvin dealt dope for years, but now he’s got God. God, a criminal record and a metal plate in his head. That and a buck ten some lady gave him got him on the number 26 bus back to the halfway house from downtown. And maybe that’s enough. He’s clean and sober, 57 years old and moved in the early morning arthritic dawn by the simplicity and peacefulness of the Amish way of life. He wonders why Harrison didn’t stay there on the farm and help that woman take care of that kid.

He’s put babies in the hospital. Knows he’s sold dope to pregnant girls. Done things he'll never be able to forget. He’s seen a lot more. On the streets and in Nam. I see him.

Marvin’s lecturing now on babies having babies and how kids these days are getting old too damn fast. Across the aisle SnowBunny’s half of her cell phone conversation won’t keep to itself. "Where you at bitch?" She’s a fat white chick in a halter top with tattoos (that’s how I know she’s "SnowBunny") and pawn shop bling. Shitty gold sunglasses with rhinestones and -no lie- gold caps on all her front teeth. Once upon a time she’d be called a "wigger" but I don’t know if that’s even the term for it anymore. It’s certainly not politically correct, but hey, the bus aint’ PC.

Speaking of politics, I think that’s the one thing Marvin and I have in common. He may be missing one of his ribs, most of his teeth, all of his right knee and part of his scull, but he’s got enough brains to see we’re doing Vietnam all over again in the desert. He calls it legalized theft. "We stole this country to begin with. What’s gonna stop ‘em from stealin’ what they want." A 57 year old, black ex-con Vietnam vet and a privileged middle class white boy, liberal environmentalist government employee, but we got something in common. We know politicians lie.

The bus stops to let snowbunny and her half-hispanic girfriend waddle off. Marvin doesn’t slow down. He’s probably got a lot of catching up to do on casual conversation. There’s pain oozing out of the well-oiled cracks in his face and pooling in the milky vein streaked whites of his eyes.
Another guy I’ve seen before sits toward the front of the bus looking back at our animated conversation. Looks like an ex-hippie. Greyish blond ponytail, wire-rimmed glasses and wispy long beard. He’s skinny and delicate of build with a face that looks like he descended from Gnomes. He’s been balancing on his lap a shrink-wrapped package of some kind of wooden thing that obviously came with some assembly required. He looks good natured. I wonder where he was when Marvin was doing his tour of duty in Vietnam. Was he in Canada? Kent State? or slogging through the rice paddies himself?

Marvin is talking about advice his old man gave him years ago as a younger black guy sits down across from us. He’s wearing baggy denim shorts and a t-shirt that shows off a lot of amateur tattoos and a WWJD bracelet. He seems uninterested in Marvin’s ramblings but he gives me that look you get when you know you’re part of an odd couple.

The back of the bus is the place to be in the morning. It’s quiet unless those kids from the magnet school who argue and insult each other every morning are back there. In the morning the crazies ride up front. They jabber at the driver or the elderly passengers and scribble in their spiral bound notebooks. There’s the old white guy with the bowl haircut who wants to give you tracts explaining why his church is the only one that will get you to Heaven. This comes after he explains he’s divorced and he used to work for the state too until he had to go on disability for his narcolepsy. That’s why they won’t let him drive. A lot of people in the front rows in the morning talk about "they" and "them." It goes with the territory.

In the afternoon, the dynamics flip and the front of the bus is the safer place to be. Just a bunch of tired people heading home to get dinner. In the back in the afternoon I’ve seen drug deals, and drunks, hustlers trying to get laid, and one dumb Rastafarian actually get kicked off for lighting up a joint right there on the bus. You can’t even smoke, much less get high. But it takes all types.

I wish Marvin good luck and get off at my stop. He’s got farther on to go to get to where he’s stayin. The smell of diesel fumes spirals around me as the #26 roars off. Always takes me back to the days of the high school marching band. Inhaling straight exhaust from the buses while you unload and assemble your instruments and sit on empty cases trying not to scuff the white, highly-polished shoes. Woolen uniforms that drenched you in sweat in late summer and early fall and were too thread bare from previous wearers to keep your ass from freezing to metal bleacher benches after half-time once winter arrived. Fall Fridays were football games - Saturdays were band contests. A bunch of middle class white kids trying not to get out of step while they attempted to infuse a bad arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with passion and excitement. This poor Russian composer in the 1870s writes a piano composition to memorialize an exhibition of his late friend’s artwork. How was he to know it would end up blasted out in a three minute 45 second mostly-in-tune rendition by testosterone-charged trumpet players who try too hard for the high notes just before the start of the third quarter. I still remember the time the players ran through the flag line as we marched off field and the entire band seethed with righteous indignance at the obvious slap in the face. It's crazy, but every time I hear Don McLean sing American Pie I get chills at the part where "the marching band refused to yield" the day the music died.

I pick up the mail and head up the driveway, trying to shake the cobwebs and memories from my brain in order to take in Zoom on the couch with my daughter and give my wife a respite from holding the baby. Later I look up Pictures at an Exhibition on line and find out a German heavy metal band named Mekong Delta also did an arrangement of the composition. So maybe the B.C. Goodpasture High School Marching Band version wasn’t the worst.

I wonder if the Mekong Delta is where Marvin left bits of himself behind.