So I’ve been watching this show “Strip Search,” which is a reality show about people who want to become comic artists. One of the challenges is to complete a comic in 90 minutes given two random words as a topic. One episode, they got “naughty mystery” – so I paused it then and there, and did the best comic I could in 90 minutes.
Here it is, warts and all (didn’t get the last font more legible, nor get the black balance correct on the last two panels). Click “read more” to see the (ever-so-slightly) touched up version!
(beware: this contains minor spoilers for pretty much every DreamWorks movie, and a couple Pixar ones)
I’m in yoga class. There are only three people in this session. The teacher is taking requests. I tell her my wrists have been hurting lately. She has us contort our hands into stressed positions and close them into fists. “Grip tightly,” she says.
Three months earlier, I’m in a small room, singing karaoke one on one with the only woman I’ve ever loved. Five days, I’ve known her. This is our fourth date. Everything is happening very fast. She will say being with me feels very natural. I will say it’s like seeing a new color for the first time.
My turn, and I sing, embarrassing as it is, Fell In Love With A Girl:
Fell in love with a girl
Fell in love once and almost completely
She’s in love with the world
But sometimes these feelings can be so misleading
Two weeks later, she will stop talking to me, without explanation.
My teacher instructs me to bend my legs deeply behind my back. “This may be challenging. The thighs are where we store our stress, our bad memories,” she says. “Hold on and breathe through it.”
My thighs are burning as I collapse in my tent. I’ve climbed over a kilometer at high altitude on my mountain trek to Machu Picchu. The rain is setting in over the ancient Incan ruins and soon it provides a soundtrack to my dreams.
I am in a boat floating down a river towards a submerged temple at the base of a waterfall. Standing across its zigzagged staircases stand a dozen men in black robes and white masks. I know they are here to judge me. I have been here before and I will be here again before I leave Peru. Every night, just before they render judgment, I wake up.
The end of the world has come and gone, and I am in my car, again talking to the only girl I’ve ever loved. She apologizes for the long months of silence. She’s not good for me. She’s not good to me. She’s not well. I’m not either.
I tell her that in spite of everything, I still want to be with her. It’s worth fighting for “us.” I ask her to come upstairs. “I just,” throat clenching shut, “just want to hold you for awhile. Just want to hold you.”
I am in agony.
My wrists are underneath my body and my back is arched in the deepest stretch of the night. Every part of me is screaming. I am at my limit.
My teacher orders us to keep our form. “Hold it,” she intones. “Hoooooold it.”
I can do nothing else.
It is my last night before the men in black robes. Before the months of silence. Before the autopsy on “us.” I look into the voids of their masks. I grit my teeth. I ball my fists.
I wish the river would flow in the opposite direction.
I know I’ve failed their test.
She leaves my car for the last time. I brace myself against the steering wheel. White knuckles. Tight grip.
I remember my teacher’s words. I breathe in deeply, sending air to deep and hollow places. I close my eyes.
My fingers slip loose and my hands fall to my lap.
I exhale. I open my eyes.
And she is gone.
The last couple months have been extremely difficult, throwing new challenge after new challenge at me. The underlying difficulty of these problems has been that they’ve been inscrutable. How do you make sense of dementia? Of cancer? Of loved ones suddenly cutting off ties, without explanation? How do you make sense out of the chaos of daily life?
This has been on my mind a lot lately. And this is what I’ve got:
Making order of chaos — out of the non-understood — is the fundamental challenge of being human. Think to the evolution of human civilizations, and how we’ve established explanations for what our experiences. Sometimes it’s as ridiculous as “the sun is pulled across the sky by 4 horses and a guy in a chariot” or “winter happens because mother nature misses her daughter when she goes away for several months out of the year.” But they break down the unfamiliar into something relatable, something comfortable. Otherwise we are perpetually in fight-or-flight mode, constantly on edge.
To this end, we’ve established rule systems to pass down across generations. The most obvious ones are religion and science, but if you think of the task of rule systems as “give a series of explanations that make life as easy and survivable as possible,” you’ll find even more systems: nationality, ethnicity, even just local communities. Don’t leave the village, don’t eat pork, don’t talk to strangers. The “why” of each rule is different from system to system, but ultimately, they answer questions. The fewer questions in one’s life, the less stress, the easier life. These systems rewire your brain for comfort: you don’t just believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, you know it. Things continue, as they did before you and will after you. The rules persist. In a word, what we’ve created, to tame the chaos of an disorderly world, is a sense of continuity.
What’s interesting to me is the idea of broken continuity. After all, many, many rule systems have risen and fallen across human history. People are adaptable enough to rewire their brains from one rule system to another across their lifetimes. One can go from knowing there is no God to knowing that God exists and loves them in a matter of days. How do we deal with exceptions to the rules — how do our brains adapt to inconsistent rules, to broken continuity?
In thinking about this, I’ve found it’s helpful to think of rule systems as organisms in a process of natural selection. I’ll use Judaism as an example. Judaism was born out of a polytheistic religion, with its central god, Yahweh, declaring war on others like Ba’al Hadad and Dagon by making “I am the only God, there are no others before me” the central tenet of Judaism. By not allowing its followers to even accept the possibility of other gods — in fact, encouraging them to destroy other religions’ priests — Judaism locked its followers into its belief system. It then evolved various laws that kept its followers alive, like “don’t eat pork,” as food preparation was not advanced enough to make it safe.
And what of the cast-off gods? They were remixed, recontextualized, re-explained. Ba’al Hadad and all other gods in that pantheon were recast in Abrahamanic religions as Ba’al Zebub, or Beelzebub, lord of the flies — a demon in later Christian mythology. Dagon’s temples were subject to Jewish vandalism, with followers breaking statues’ legs into fish tail formations, as “dag” is Hebrew for “fish.” Gradually, the image of Dagon became so corrupted that he ended up being envisioned more as a Lovecraftian fish-demon than his original godlike state.
Then Christianity came along and took a different tack than old Judaism’s kill-em-all tendencies: recast them into the fold. Hadad, for example, was variously linked with the storm-god Teshub, the Egyptian god Set, and the Zeus. The nature goddess Eostre (and her associated rabbit-rich fertility holiday), was gradually folded into the larger tradition of Jesus’ resurrection, and Easter was born. Christianity’s very existence is arguably due to such inclusions — how else was it differentiated from Judaism than by its adoption of the idea of a resurrecting god? An idea that was echoed in many other religions. The ranks of saints swelled up with each new religion that Christianity would embrace, with old religions transformed into new states, and continuity was maintained.
(you can extend this idea easily to the concept of comic books as modern-day gods, and the relationship of comic book fans to continuity, but that’s a blog post for another time)
So, what does this all have to do with coping with a couple difficult months?
It’s been about establishing a path to walk. As commonplace as it is for people to live with passed-down rule systems, I find myself without such an inheritance. Although I was raised Jewish, by Jewish law I was Christian (and by Christian law, Jewish). What with the preponderance of alternative religions in my childhood, accepting any of them as a real truth didn’t make much sense. Throughout my childhood, neither parent was on great terms with their families, and so I did not grow up with great sense of genetic heritage. Ethnically, I’m an indeterminate blank slate. Nationally, I don’t identify much as Kentuckian, and only reluctantly as American.
In short, I’m in many senses a series of broken continuities. Many are born with comfortable paths to walk down, roads more traveled. I feel that in many ways I was born out in the weeds, weaving wildly across all paths traveled in my journeys. It’s not that I’m entirely without direction, or that my life is unduly difficult, it’s that I can’t quite subscribe fully to any rule system, or commit myself to an established way of living. That’s not uncommon for anyone, especially in this day and age – I just feel it particularly acutely of late.
I’m weird. And I want to know what that means.
In this case, it means I can’t fall back on a pre-compiled set of wisdom. It means I get to pick and choose, compiling my own collection of answers and parables for my daily life. That’s exciting, although difficult when times themselves, as they have been recently, are difficult.
(this is a series of posts documenting my dreams)
There was an old man who lived on a largely deserted forested island. Every day he would jog for upwards of thirty miles around the island. He’d jog over bridges as they collapsed, often while walking dogs. He was constantly doing extremely dangerous stunts, jumping over chasms and giving the local wildlife rangers heart attacks.
He’d do all this just to get attention – he wanted to prove he knew some really crazy magic tricks, and that was how he was able to do it. He had learned the magic tricks from a famous old stage magician who was secretly his grandpa. Everyone thought the magician had died with no heirs, but the old man knew better. You see, the magician had been a family friend and had attended a big wedding many years ago. He had gotten incredibly drunk at this wedding… along with the mans grandmother. What nobody realized until years later was that the man’s grandmother and the magician had gotten secretly married at that wedding too, because they’d gotten so drunk. Because they were married, the woman learned all his tricks and passed them on to her grandson, who is now the old jogging man.
Eventually the old man got enough attention from the local park rangers that word got out about him. Eventually his story got to the Magic Castle, and they decided they would do a special on him. They were going to send their best young up-and-coming magician to learn his story and eventually do a televised show. Because of that, the island had become a tourist trap, with tons of lazy people showing up and expecting to have the whole story spoon-fed to them without doing any work. I was there, trying to follow the old man and the young magician, as they jogged around the island, up hills and over bridges. As I did so, tourists would yell at me and ask for me to explain what was going on.
And then I woke up.