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.

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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.

 

Have Two

 

            I have two stacks of vocabulary tests in my hands, standing at the front of the room, and one of my bolder students says, to delay things, “So, what’re you doin’ this weekend, Ms Schurman?”

“Well,” I say, “One of my friends is turning eighty today, and I’m going to his party.”  I try to generally portray myself as a dork at school.  There’s nothing worse than a cool teacher. 

“You have friends who are eighty?  And they have parties?” he says incredulously. 

“We have our coffee together,” I explain, as if this explains something.

My student shakes his bald head.  “That’s crazy,” he says.

“Everything inside your desk,” I say, and everyone groans.

Actually, Charles’ party looks like more fun than plenty of others I’ve been to.  I open a door in a boring strip center to see a mass of mostly white-haired guests.  Weaving through them to the buffet table, I notice that although their average age must be 70, they are laughing and downing white wine and beer like college kids.  Some people are wearing big buttons with photos of Charles at every age: baby, teenager, adult.  One of the photos, I notice, was taken at my birthday party, when Charles posed with a belly dancer.  He was only seventy-eight that year.

I had been invited by a mutual friend of Charles’ and mine—who is much closer to 30 than 80.  I find him by the buffet table.  Pete is tall, built like Superman, with big mitts of hands.  He climbs mountains.  He sells stocks.  Along with Charles, we’ve been idly chatting for about seven years over coffee.  I fill a plate, order a drink, and tell him that one of my coworkers just asked me out.  He advises me to meet the guy at a downtown bar wearing a miniskirt and red stilettos.  I thank him for this sage advice.

I find a table seated across from one of the octogenarians.  During the war, he and his friends used to steal shoes from downtown shops.  Used to take the streetcars that went over into Kansas City, Kansas, across a bridge without sides that scared the crap out of them, and they liked it.

Charles’s daughter comes over to meet me.  She has her father’s gregarious nature, and her mother’s dark hair.  I agree to encourage Charles to spend part of the winter in Florida.  The daughter is afraid that he will fall on the ice, alone.  I have worried about this, too.

People keep coming up to meet me and assuming I am Pete’s fiancé.  I ask him where his fiancé is, and he says, “Ah, we had a little falling out.”  I’m sorry I asked.  The charm of acquaintances is that you don’t have to go into your deeper miseries.

            A wrinkly woman stands up to give a toast, clinks her glass with a fork.  “I just want to tell Charles happy birthday, from the only woman here he hasn’t dated!”  Everyone laughs.  Another person greets me as Pete’s fiancé.

I go to say goodbye to Charles.  He tells me I am the prettiest girl in the room.  Wearing red lipstick always has this effect on him.  I told him I hoped to have an 80th birthday as great as his.

“I hope you have two!” he says, beaming.

Charles is on dialysis twice a week, and I’m going home alone, tipsy.  But eighty might be a good goal, after all.

You’re a Shark

I know you think you’re a dolphin, but I’m telling you, you’re a shark. 

 

Most humans think they are dolphins.  The ones who say they are sharks mean, “I’m on the prowl and I am relentless in a sexy way.”  They are probably lying about this.  People who are actually on the prowl and relentless don’t need to tell everyone they are like sharks.  They just kick your ass. 

 

But back to you: you are actually a shark.  Think about it: how cuddly are you?  You think you are cuddly, and clever, and peaceful, and intuitive.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, be honest: you are none of those things. 

 

I’m relying on a few pieces of research here to tell me about you.  In the last month, I have watched about twenty minutes of “Jaws” (I was interrupted) and an hour of “Jaws III” (I came in late).  From these two excerpts, I’ve learned that sharks make great villains.  You can’t see where they are coming from.  When they attack, it’s basically for no reason, and they get you and they disappear.  This very nearly describes the denouement of my failed relationships, both romantic and platonic.  When things go wrong, the issues appear suddenly and tear the thing apart with carnivorous zest. 

 

I learned from these films that people are constantly underestimating sharks.  Here’s this massive animal, famous for its size and vigor, and the first thing people always want to do is hold a meeting.  They want to float out in a boat that is about the same size as the shark, but floats lower in the water.  Someone might even be moved to try to inject Herr Shark with a dose of some somnambulant drug.  The ideas for how to deal with the shark become even lamer with the subsequent sequels, I assume, although you should recall I’m relying on data from only “Jaws” and “Jaws III.”  People are constantly underestimating you, too, aren’t they?  Haven’t you recently had a ridiculous argument with someone (let’s guess your sibling, significant other) that led you to burst out with some statement so aggressively absurd that you couldn’t fall asleep for wondering what mysterious ugliness overpowered your brain?  In “Jaws III” this underestimation finally leads people to actually climb into the holding tank with the captured shark and try to pet it and resucitate it.  Eventually, this leads to problems that oddly resemble my last car trip with my sister.  Confined to a small area, my fury awakened unexpectedly and… well, you know.

 

You may say, on a good day, that you are enlightened.  Think back without the rose-colored glasses, though.  When someone cut in front of you while driving, did you relax and chirp along on your way, swooping down along the road like a dolphin would in the current?  You didn’t.  I know this for sure.  You didn’t understand, deep in your cellular structure, that we are all connected, and that the person who cut ahead of you as if they had never been introduced to the concept of turn-taking and clearly thought that their time was way more important than yours, this person was actually as much you as you were yourself, and so it did not matter who went first or second, it was all completely the same thing.  Really this was not you.  You wanted to grab that person with your teeth by his or her jugular and shake them until they were pale.  You probably did not do this.  I hope you did not.  You just wanted to.

 

Are you intuitive?  Do you find the answers to your questions and problems just suddenly and when you are in a sweet haze of relaxation?  You might be more like a dolphin.  I’m more like a shark.  The worse I feel, the more ready I am to swim dully in circles until I get hungry enough to kill something.  About twice a year I am intuitive.  The rest of the year I am a shark.

 

I know that sometimes you feel smart.  Like if you wanted to communicate through brainwaves you could.  Like you are beyond the petty limitations of language.  Dolphins build these mysterious relationships with each other, and with people, and we have this idea that perhaps they are operating on a level above or beyond literal communication.  Sharks communicate with two methods: complete silence, and severe trauma.  I know how to work in the areas between those two, I guess.  However, I’ve been known to sit through the complaints and whining with polite silence until I have suddenly had enough, and then tell you to get the hell away from me.

 

I didn’t tell you all this to depress you.  It’s just that if you understand you are a shark, and not one of the dull pretty people who run away from them, you’re going to be quicker to forgive yourself.  You weren’t born a dolphin.  You probably ought to try to be more dolphin-like.  Just don’t be too hard on yourself.  Although we are genetically closer to the dolphins, we’ve got a lot of shark in our souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hunt for Black Hawk Down

One thing that can really disrupt a long, luxurious shower is when you glance down and see a huge mercury black cockroach slide down the side of your tub into the ankle-deep water.  If you’re like me, you might scream bloody murder and leap out of the bathtub and try not to fall down, fleeing the scene.

 

And let’s say you might be leaning on the other side of the bathroom door now, naked and dripping wet.  You, a five-foot-eight homo sapien, you who are in control of many powerful technological wonders, are hiding behind a door from that possum-sized insect.  What are you going to do at this point?  You’re laughing, because it’s ridiculous…but you’re also trembling.

 

You’re thinking, that fucker is so fat and long he could be venomous.  His juiced-up torso is so slick and suave that he’s probably just gleefully sliding back and forth along the wet white porcelain bathtub bottom.  He’s probably making the happy noise that the demon horsemen screech in those “Lord of the Rings” movies.  When he finally slows to a stop, he’ll turn over onto his scratchy feet and skitter around exploring like he’s thinking of redecorating.  Some garbage in a vase over here.  Another spot of wet sludge, just symmetrical, would be nice.  Could we add some rotten vegetables or perhaps a fungus bed? 

 

Since I’m just wearing a towel at this point, I have to think of suiting up for the confrontation.  There’s a black t-shirt with pentagrams on it in my drawer.  It’s the only Satan-positive thing I own.  Yes, it might intimidate the enemy.  Jeans.  Sneakers—I don’t have combat boots anymore.  New Balance will have to be tough enough.

 

At this point, maybe a reasonable person would grab a shoe or a newspaper and tromp back in there and squash the roach.  Rather than following that conventional path, I decided it was time for an impotent surveillance mission.

 

Okay, now, open the door.  Open…open.  Where is he?  Peek around the shower curtain.  There he is!  Scream, slam the door shut.  Safe.  Was that even him?  That scraggly dark spot?  It could have been just a clump of cat hair. 

 

Now that I’ve taken a good look at him, perhaps I should come up with a strategy.  I don’t know that I can get violent with the guy.  I don’t have the force of a bar bouncer. I’m more of a Rasputin sort of woman.  Poison is the kind of elegant solution I’m looking for.  I mean, I try not to keep things in the house that are dangerous to children and other living things, but there might be something here.  Yes, I could definitely poison him.  It was a favorite maneuver in the Hamlet household.  And almost everybody ended up dead.

 

Let’s see…latex house paint?  Organic all-surface cleaner?  Palmolive?  Damn my hippie credos.  The only poison we have is vodka, and I’m not sure what will happen if I pour vodka on a roach.  I know I’m not wasting Beaujolais on this.

 

No, I see: Comet! It has bleach in it!  Bleach is dangerous—that’s why you can go blonde up top but not down below.  Comet, in its proud green can, with his boyish film of powder dulling his shiny flattop.  I’ve done this kind of thing before, Comet seems to whisper.  I turn it around, and Comet’s back pocket screams, “HAZARDOUS TO HUMANS AND DOMESTIC ANIMALS.”  Unfortunately, Comet does not specifically mention wild predatory animals, like roaches.  “CAUTION, Causes mild eye irritation,” he adds.  At least Comet might stun Mr. Roach.  From my brief surveillance, I would guess he had eyes.

 

I stand behind the door again, holding Comet’s torso like a nightstick.  Okay… go!  Throw open the door, hold out the canister.  That’s him!  I shake, shake, on him and he is only wiggling a little bit, what is wrong with him? 

 

His wiggling wiggling feet and his hair-sized antennae and is he experiencing “mild irritation”?  I’m not sure.  It could be anything from annoyance to agony.  Roach is fully sprinkled, looks like he’s covered with powdered toothpaste or mint-flavored cocaine.  Slam the door shut again.  Everything leaning on the ledge above the door falls on my head.

 

Sigh.  Lean over to pick up a painting and two little doodads that were balanced up above, with my hands shaking dramatically.  Hug myself across the pentagrams on my chest.  Shudder some more.  What am I doing with this Comet anyway?  Comet won’t seal the deal.

 

I should squish the roach. I should smash him.  No, I can’t possibly smash this bug.  It is too huge.  His thick date-shaped body is the scariest four inches square I’ve ever seen and if I squished him, which I should do, it would not be like neatly flattening a measly ant or a popping a bitty gnat or folding down a spider, it would be a juicy event– like crushing a big grape with your bare feet, it would go everywhere.  Instead of grape juice, it’s cockroach cocktail.

 

I can’t squish him, but what else can I do?  I could call for reinforcements.  Am I the sort of person who has to call for reinforcements when faced with the orange level?  My God, I am wearing a satanic t-shirt.  And I am one hundred times the size of the problem. 

 

Yes, I am that sort of person.  I go sit on the couch.  Get book of phone numbers.  Get phone.  Look at numbers of men I know.  Realize this is sexist, but truly none of the women I know will kill for me.  My two men friends who might go for it are already at work.  I don’t think they will be interested. 

 

My neighbors are gone for the day.  And I’ve never asked them to kill a bug for me.  We’re nodding neighbors, sitting on the porch neighbors, not crisis-intervention neighbors. I could call maintenance.  They usually show up within a day or two.  I could leave the shower running for twenty-four hours.  I don’t pay for that water anyhow.

 

Clearly, I could call my ex-boyfriend.  Calling him would signal my defeat as a feminist, my reliance on him emotionally despite the fact that that I hate him, and I love him, and I’m completely indifferent to him.  Or maybe it means I’m liberated enough to outsource my problem, and not sit on the couch for another hour letting to the shower run.  I call the ex.  He answers, listens, and agrees to come over.

 

While I wait for him, I write out a check for $20 so that I won’t have to thank him with sexual favors, and write neatly in the memo area, “nasty bug killing fee.”  I write his full name, all three pieces, which helps fill the time as the shower runs and runs.  I chew on the pen that I used to write the check…. 

 

He knocks!  I jump up and let him in.

 

“It’s in there,” I say.  Although my ex is a foot taller than Woody Allen, 25% less funny, and 80% less Jewish, this still is still too “Annie Hall” for me.  I hope he doesn’t have a new lady friend back at his house.  He bravely heads into the bathroom.  I run back to the couch and pull my knees to my chest.

 

A few long moments later, he emerges.  “It’s so big and scary!” he shrieks in falsetto, huddling against my closet door.

 

I frown.

 

“No, I got it.  He’s all gone.  But I had to hit him twice.  What was that crap all over him?”

 

“Oh.  Comet,” I say.  Maybe if you’re suddenly and deliberately attacked by a cockroach, you’ll just calmly step out of the bathroom and put on your robe.  Maybe you’ll grab a sneaker and whack it without a second thought.  If this is the case, I can only tell you: you may be missing out.