Pascal’s Wager

The last two summers of my elementary school years, I went to camp. The first time was pretty scary—I rarely had slept away from my parents. Although I was generally an independent sort, when there were sleepovers, friends slept at our house. We were the party house. I was worried about becoming homesick the way some people, in November, begin to worry about catching a cold. I might lose it. I might freak out.

This camp was in a tiny town in Mississippi. How tiny? A trip into “town” was a trip to Koscuisko, where Oprah Winfrey was raised. That place is no metropolis. They have a Wal-Mart, is all. The town where the camp was had a video rental place and a gas station. For a time, they had a tiny grocery store. And they had a church, of course. It was a town founded on religion.

The only activity in town revolved around bringing people to Jesus and keeping them firmly tethered there. Camp was one such program. The others were a Christian radio station and a boarding school.

I had been raised Lutheran: terribly average Protestant. We believed in Jesus, as a nice, clean, good man. Our sanctuary had a gold cross at the front. We had communion from small shot glasses, kneeling before that cross, two candles, and a 1960s textile backdrop that blended up from yellows and whites to deep blues near the ceiling. Other people might be going to hell if they didn’t believe what we believed. This was mentioned as an embarrassing aside. We were encouraged to bring friends to church, but, frankly, I didn’t buy the whole hell thing. It was so extreme. It didn’t make sense. I had grown up in this calm, orderly, pleasant suburb, and the idea of eternal damnation was way outside my reasonable middle-class mindset. I never saw my parents throw out Jesus like a life preserver to strangers. We did things like going door to door near Halloween asking for canned goods with my Sunday school class, and caroling at nursing homes. We followed rules and gave to the community in a neat, pleasant way.

In our cabin at camp, we read the same Bible stories that I had heard at church. I was a Sunday school whiz. I was down with these stories. When we raced to find books of the Bible, rather than memorize the order, I flipped through the upper-right corner, and usually won the glow-in-the-dark cross or the little wooden picture of Jesus the shepherd. I was a fast flipper and a fast reader. Beyond merely reading stories or running page-turning contests, though, the counselors at camp wanted us to memorize Bible verses. That was weird. I had never been asked to memorize anything but the multiplication tables. And, I mean, I got the gist of the book. Why cram it in my brain word for word?

A week of camp culminated in a theatrical reenactment of Jesus’ life, produced very simply, in the woods. We walked across to the other side of the lake on this important night, and sat on wooden benches. (One question I always have is: how are they going to fake the nails in the hands? At the camp production, someone just slipped his hands through ropes around each end of the cross’ crossbar.) At the end of the show, when all the bedsheet-clad counselors had left the stage, it was announced that if you had not yet “asked Jesus into your heart,” you could stay back and have someone assist you in praying this prayer.

I wasn’t sure if I was in the clear at this point, or not. Hadn’t I been raised properly Christian? Hadn’t I spent every Sunday of my life behaving properly in church? Wasn’t God cool with me like my parents were? If they didn’t reprimand, that meant things were cool. I wasn’t often reprimanded. I was a reasonably compliant kid.

I also couldn’t make a spectacle of myself by staying back. Wouldn’t my parents be shamed if their daughter, the daughter of the president of the congregation and the Sunday school teachers, needed remedial tutoring in God? I did not need special attention. I could certainly handle this myself.

Although I was not convinced it was necessary, I did innoculate myself against hell back in my bunk, mentally pressing out: Jesus, come into my heart. I want to be saved. Would that do it? Did Jesus know that I doubted the process, and would this make it all invalid? Wasn’t God smarter than I was? Maybe it a letter-of-the-law type of thing, like going to church every Sunday? God just needed a “t” crossed with the proper prayer? Did Jesus know that I understood why a lot of people could think his whole saving-the-world story made no sense? Did God know that I would hate Him if I thought he sent people to hell for something so dumb as not praying a one-time-only, kindergarten type of prayer? There’s no way I could work with that kind of God.

I’d like to say that the whole thing seems completely silly to me now. I secretly think, well, if the world is crazier than I thought… if I am wrong… then at least I have my Pascal wager inoculation from sixth grade. I often believe that there is divinity in the world, that it is mysterious and powerful, and, at its core, productive. I generally expect that death is the end. I plan for nothing afterward. If the mystery of me continues to exist somehow, I hope that will be as pleasant as the moments I’ve felt close to God in my mortal life. But I guess I’ll be covered either way.

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The Student Massage

I needed massages when I became a teacher. If you sit at a desk and type all day, you don’t need massages. You like them, your eyes roll up in your head, but you don’t need them. You need a massage if part of your job is telling people the same thing 6-100 times a day, and occasionally being called a bitch for not accepting late homework.

However, teaching didn’t provide me with the salary for frequent professional massages.  That’ s an expensive habit.  Other teachers advised me that cheaper options were available: you could go get the discount massage at the massage school in town.

Professional and twice a year had been white towels, fresh flowers. Once a month, student, half-price is ER-style curtains and uncertain direction. You sign in at a desk more medical than cosmotological. The student takes your clipboard and says, “Is there any particular reason you’re here? Just to relax?”

“My shoulders,” I say, following into the huge room. The masseuse-in-training leaves you to undress. I hang up my clothes. I slither under blanket, sheets.

There’s nothing unpleasant about being rubbed down by a well-intentioned healer. It’s always good to be warm and naked and touched—whether it’s personal or not. But these beginners, who charge half price, make you realize what can go wrong.

You can run out of lotion. Burn! You can rub nicely, without digging the creases out of a muscle. You can lean over and push your boobs onto somebody’s leg. Tucking those sheets in six different configurations to hide the gynecologists’ territory is not easy. It’s not that I’m so modest, it’s just that it can get chilly.

“I’m sorry,” says the sniffler. “I have allergies.” Don’t be alarmed that I’m rubbing my germ-infested hands all over you.

“You doing okay?” the talker interrupts, while I’m busy visualizing the light opening in my forehead.

“Is that good?” More experienced massage therapists ask this some other way, because the question elicits either an inappropriate, “Oh yeah!” or a grunt. You can’t really say, “No.”

The cushion thingy that’s supposed to go under your ankles can be under your feet instead. Your head can hang too low on the support, dropping your chin or lip on the metal bar underneath. Cold metal. Like getting braces, or lockjaw.

Whatever the misstep, I want to just shut up and take it. I didn’t come here to teach any more. I tolerate the metal under my chin, a little too slimy on the lotion. I’m breathing and sinking, to restore whatever has been eroded in the last few weeks.

Still, afterwards I will fill out the little survey. Drink my cool water. Give her a 3 out of 4 for sheet tucking. I can do that much.

Celebrating continues.

Last night I celebrated our nation’s return to reason.  I read the New York Times and listened to cello music on a scratchy record.  I baked a cake, and I chatted with a gentleman caller, completely unchaperoned. 

As Mr. Vonnegut would say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” 

…Every time I hear “President-elect Obama,” my blood pressure eases, my shoulders sink, and I lose the lines between my eyebrows.

Hot off the presses: urban youth react to Obama victory

I am glad to report that many of our students here (all African-American) are pretty psyched about the Obama victory, and have been writing in class about how this changes their idea of themselves and their futures.  One of the boys said he cried.  Another said his dumb grandma went downstairs to honk the horn on her car. 

One wrote, “People in other countries believe that America is once again the land of opportunity, that really, you can do anything, with hard work and dedication.  I mean, I’m no ignorant person, but I didn’t see America letting a black man win the presidential election.  I am only 17 years old, and I didn’t think I would live long enough to see a real life black president.  But in all honesty, I thank God.  We needed this.”

Still, they maintain their usual annoying teenage whining, annoyance, and misbehavior, so I know the world hasn’t totally flipped on its axis.  We kept up our cranky struggle for power, teacher/student wise.  That’s reassuring.

November 4

Everything else up here is carefully revised and not just off the cuff… because I value your time, dear reader…however, today requires two extemporaneous insertions.

One: people searching for “naked locker room” on the internet are accidentally being sent to the tale of my dying grandmother and her bathroom problems.  This must be poetic justice for a conservative (though not prudish) woman.

Two: I think last night was the only day of my life in which I sat and pondered how Jesse Jackson was feeling.  Whenever there is some bright spotlight, I always imagine the person in the shadows.  This is why I don’t really enjoy sports.  Even if “my” team wins, I’m thinking about what it’s like to be in the losing locker room, in the shadows. 

Mr. Jackson and I don’t have a whole lot in common (other than political leanings).  But as I was doing not much of anything last night in my yellow gold attic bedroom, I thought: Jesse Jackson must be freaked out.  And I am freaked out.  He thinks we’re going to have a black president tomorrow.  So do I.  I think we’re both terribly pleased, but my awe is overshadowing my pleasure thus far. 

Driving to work this morning, I drove past two polling places in largely African-American neighborhoods, and both had lines stretching far out the door.  I tried not to burst into tears at this.  It’s going to be a long day, and there won’t be time to burst into tears over and over again.  I also tried to find an appropriate song to listen to.  It wasn’t perfect, but I settled on “As,” Stevie Wonder.  Not political, but upbeat.  It’s one of my favorite love songs because it’s not like “I love you, sexy baby,” it’s like, “I’ll love for forever [although our love might change completely and we’ll have to be just friends or you might get a terrible disease and I’ll have to lock you in the attic]”, which strikes me as a more honest kind of love. 

I wish the whole thing was over.  Seeing the lines gave me a surge of certainty that this is our day.  Then I think of the Kerry year again, and I cringe. 

I wondered, probably along with Jesse Jackson, if there would be protests…riots… if (heaven forbid) Obama lost.  On the radio they reported that The Authorities are preparing for such a possibility.  Shiver. 

My students need to leave today thinking I could vote for John McCain.  I think I have done a reasonable job of maintaining neutrality.  However, I do have an Obama sticker on my car, and there is sometimes discussion of this.  I guess I should say, “Who put an Obama sticker on my car?  And who put that Kerry sticker underneath it?  Gosh darn it!” 

I hope that tomorrow morning is the first day of something different for my kids here.  I am certainly politically aligned with Obama– I’m not voting for him based on his race– but it is a delicious bonus that he can heal wounds that we have wasted years and years reopening (to maintain a “safe” discussion of race and avoid an awkward discussion of class).  Even better, he can push people who are disenfranchised to accept that progress is possible.

Special thanks today to the little dog Jo, wherever you are, naked or dressed.

Render Unto Caesar

Last week’s gospel was: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s.  I was definitely having rendering problems.  Render, in case you weren’t sure, means “to give what is due or owed.”  I possessed, each week, seven days and do the math, you know, a lot of hours, and I somehow felt like I spent most of my week doing things I didn’t want to do.  Why was I giving my time to areas where it was not “due or owed”?

It’s a practical problem—I want to be a writer but lack the domestic freedom of the writers of yore.  I have dishes to do, and then a demanding full-time job.  It’s frequently a difficult decision to balance the need for an organized space and a the need for a chunk of time for Art. 

Sundays are my usual cleaning days, and when my cleaning is done, I get to have a cup of coffee and writing time.  Every week, I fight a little civil war over the hours between three and four. 

I’d like to get to coffee and have a solid hour and a half to settle in and write before church.  I’d also like to start my dizzying work week with a clean kitchen and bathroom and the trash taken out, my clothes hung up or thrown in the laundry, the catbox ready for a new week of shit—that’s an absolute minimum.  I don’t like to begin Monday feeling already deficient.

This last Sunday, I had left for coffee unshowered.  Showering was what would wait.  I know.  It’s ridiculous.  I either shortchange my cleaning and come home later deflated by lingering squalor, or I shortchange my writing time and have to zoom off to church annoyed, my head still in my notebook. For the record, I did bathe when I got home.  If any of you compulsively clean Americans are keeping score.

I also couldn’t render things yes or no according to any reasonable system.  When my dad said, I want you to come over and look at furniture on Sunday, I just should have said, no, hell to the no.  I’m not talking to anyone on Sunday.  I have spent the last two Sundays trying to act like a good girlfriend (which is a stretch for me, I assure you), and this Sunday, with boyfriend out of town, all I’m going to do is read and putter and stare and read and fall back asleep until I have to clean up.  I can’t be a good daughter or a good girlfriend or any other kind of good this Sunday.

So the message is you’re supposed to look at the thing in your hand, and say, Hey, it’s Caesar’s, and Hey, this is clearly God’s.  Except that deep down, everything is God’s, and also, if you took a minute to focus and clearly look for a face in any situation, you would probably know what to do.  Even worse, although I’m not sure I even want to go into this, the meaning of “render” that the translator may have had in mind—the one that jumped out at me– suggests that there are requirements, not merely hippie feel-good options, for how one should spend one’s time.  That it is owed to someone(s) and something(s).  And what happens if you don’t pay up what is owed?

I was not focusing and looking clearly at my situation.  I was fretting, and whining, but I was not looking.  I was spending my energy and money without even looking at what I was giving out.  Was it a fifty?  Was it a five?  And the uglier, more practical, and more scandalous truth was that I had been doing exactly the same thing with my literal money.  Since I moved last month, I have blindly thrown purchases on my debit card (verboten!), not filled out my monthly budget, left unpaid at least one bill, and cleverly avoided calling my bank.  I was also greedily avoiding making my usual donations because I worked so hard for poor kids, which only serves to make me feel like a dried-up monster.  I spent some time a few years ago getting sober with money, and here I was acting drunk again.  It was good that I was reading Eric Clapton’s autobiography.  I wish there was a Hazeldon Center for money.  Well, I guess there is… federal prison.

But this wasn’t my point.  My point was that I guess I hadn’t even learned much of a spiritual lesson, it was just that Jesus and his notetakers had pointed out to me that if you aren’t carefully considering what you are doing, you are likely to do a lot of things you don’t want to do.  That a little time up front making a reasonable plan could really pay off.  A reasonable plan could ensure that you won’t end up with a lot of Caesar receipts mixed in with your God receipts, and that you won’t end up in federal prison.

The Man Made Out of Wood

PINNOCHIO (opening of an almost-novel)

There once was a man named Gepetto who lived with his loneliness every day. Loneliness slept in the corner and sighed and kept him awake. Gepetto became older; his hair grew in white, and his teeth wore down dull, and his ankles started creaking in the morning, and his lips that were once sweet and rubbery became feathery, dry, and rude. He had always lived alone, in a woodshop where he made his money carving clock cases and inserting the works to sell them. The aloneness of the shop wore into him, until he could not face the continuing mornings of the worktable, and the coldness of his carving blades. The windows were closed when he came downstairs, and he began to leave them closed through the day.
On the worst morning, he could not proceed. He had managed to the breakfast table, to the dresser, and down the stairs, but once in the shop, he was useless. Loneliness had died in the corner, and was stinking up the whole place. In the precise location of his blankest hopelessness, Gepetto was graced by one idea.
His feet began to move, twitched with the slightest energy, suddenly. They took him to his woodpile, and his arms decided to get in on the act, dropping his withered hands around the choices, and lifting a few pieces of wood. Without permission from his broken heart, his renegade hands took delights in tool and subject, and he was fashioning an arm. A leg. Two legs. Another arm, a torso, and, cradling in one hand and slicing with another, he carved a loved face.
With hinges and screws, he put the small body together. He took out vials of paint and gave the sculpture proper shoes, proper clothes. It took him a good hour to finish the face: nostrils, curly ears, a glib mouth, and open eyes, irises blue as Gepetto’s own.
In fact, he had begun at his morning hour, and when he could look at the creation with satisfaction, it was dark night. He knew no one was watching, and so he lifted the wooden doll into his bowed arms. “If you—“ he said, since no one was listening. He touched the tan, wood-veined cheek he had sanded soft. “If you were—“ he held it closer, and the cheek matched the curve of his poor chest.

THE FIRE
I think the house was poorly designed. There were two gables in the top, Siamese twins. One set of eyes was Ellen’s bedroom, veiled in white gauze, and the other was her parents’ bathroom.
The front steps led up to a suggestion of a porch, with crude stone supports. No one ever put furniture out there, but sometimes someone sat on the steps.
The doorbell lit up, as if it had a soul, and when you pressed it, the chimes sounded lush. I rang it a few times before I left for San Diego—then I had a key of my own.
The house was built with sections of brick and siding. In the 50’s, the wooden parts were a hospital sea-green. In the ‘40s, the wood was a brown red, close to the brick. Finally, Ellen’s parents painted it white. The white of 1975 was bold in photos, but by the time I met Ellen, it had been blasted with dirty snow, autumn leaves, and clouds of pollen. It was the color of a Bedouin’s turban after a monthlong trek.
I met Ellen in the spring. Middleton has regular electrical storms in the spring, cracking the back of winter and shaking us all. The spring of 1997 was when I was finishing my undergraduate degree in the school of social work. I went to get a hamburger and read a textbook chapter, and Ellen was sitting with a friend of mine, in the table by the door. We all talked, and I didn’t read the chapter. Three weeks later, I saw her there again. I didn’t remember her name.
It was four years later, it was spring 2001, when lightning struck the house. This is how it burned: first the roof, which needed repair for a leak above the stairs. Then the attic started to get it, of course: Ellen’s unseasonable clothes, all her airy rayon and cotton sundresses, and leather sandals and t-shirts of every color, some with slogans, inside two yellow plastic bags. First the plastic had to melt, then the clothes could burn.
I think it spread to the master bedroom next because that leak in the center hall would keep the wood damp. It was also the easiest path because Ellen had spread out some sheets of aluminum and pipes, all stolen from construction sites, along the other side of the attic. Those wouldn’t burn well.
The master bedroom would go up in a rush: Ellen’s parents’ scrapbooks, her father’s collection of sheet music, and copies of the papers settling their estate, many carefully lettered in Ellen’s block writing.
The room Ellen and I slept in, that she shared with me, was on the other side. The windowsills, ceiling, and bookshelves were populated with her origami creatures, which all caught fire easily. Some dropped to the bed, and caught the blankets.
The downstairs burned, too: living room and piano, Ellen’s great-grandmother’s dining table, the pictures of vegetables framed in the kitchen, the dull-colored couch in the living room. Downstairs the trouble was the firefighters’ ammunition—everything ablaze was quickly asea.
We watched it burn, Ellen and I. Then I returned to California, this time to L.A. Ellen moved to the east coast. We didn’t see each other for a long time, though we wrote occasionally.