May 19, 2014

Thoughts on a Rainy Day

Who are we, really? Does anyone really know him- or herself? Buddhists say that personality is a ghost, that the self is an illusion, but it strikes me as being a pretty real illusion (whatever that means).

Here's an odd story. When I was in elementary school, I had a friend named David, and this friendship lasted from ages 5 to 16, when his parents moved away and David wound up at a different high school. The next time I saw him was in 2000. Apparently, I did some TV show (c-span, maybe) about the Twilight book, and David caught the show, contacted me, and we got together in Upstate NY, where he was then living. He had become a physician, had been a rebel, attacking the whole corrupt system of insurance and HMOs. Not popular with his colleagues, as you might imagine. He was also an early champion of the MRI, when there was a lot of doubt about introducing it. Anyway, he made a dinner reservation for us just down the street from our old elementary school (which had burned down years ago; this was its replacement), and after dinner we walked around the small building, smoking cigars despite the light drizzle that had started to come down.

Now you have to understand that from my own perspective of myself—from elementary school running through college (but not in grad school, which was a whole different ball of wax)—I was a nerd. I was heavily nerdile, with interests that were not 'cool'. I was not ironic or hip, in the accepted American style; girls had no interest in me, for the most part, and I had very few friends. This left me a stranger in a strange land; and from a fairly early age I had a hard time identifying with America, or relating to Americans, most of whom struck me as obtuse. Conversations with them were boring, at least for me; who cared about the new Mustang, or the World Series (they did, obviously)? (Revenge of the Nerds is one of my favorite movies, as you might expect.) But given the social context, and the fact that children and teenagers are in the process of developing their identities (and even their frontal lobes), I was very much conflicted by the reality that I didn't fit in: simultaneously wanting, and not wanting, to be part of the mainstream. As Goethe once observed, adolescence is funny only in retrospect.

Anyway, there we were, David and I, walking around our old elementary school, when he suddenly said to me, completely out of the blue, and apropos of nothing: "You know, when we were kids, you were my hero." "Yeah, right," I replied. What kind of crap was this? "No," he said, "I'm serious. The fact is that you made knowledge, and learning, cool. At age 7 you were reading poetry and playing chess. Who does that, at age 7?"

I was literally thunderstruck. How was this possible? I mean, I'm sure most of the kids around me regarded me as completely square, someone you don’t bother giving the time of day to. And here's this old pal telling me that I was a role model for him! He obviously knew me, or saw me, in a way that was very different from the way I saw myself. I stood there, in the rain, trying to rethink my childhood, which had suddenly taken on a whole new dimension.

Just so you know, before I go on with this story: a year later David got cancer, and took a room at the NIH in Bethesda. I was working in DC during those years, so every Friday after work I would drive up to the hospital in Maryland and sit with him, talk with him for a few hours. I thought he would make it, pull through, but he didn't: he died in 2002, and then, with a heavy heart, I drove 12 hours through a blinding snowstorm to Upstate NY for his funeral. My real sadness, however, was rather selfish: here I get reunited with an old friend, after all those years, and after only one year of renewed friendship the Universe takes him away. Shit.

Anyway, fast-forward now from age 7 to my early 20s, when the Vietnam war was in full swing. Once again, I was aware of my own strangeness, in America. Sure, many Americans demonstrated against the war, but percentage-wise it didn't amount to much: most were for it, until we were clearly losing the battle. Very few saw through it, realized it was a neo-colonial war in which we were using our sophisticated military technology to pound a peasant people, who had no beef with us and certainly did not constitute a threat, into the dirt. But it went beyond that. Ho Chi Minh was a Gandhi-type figure, a great statesman and intellect who wrote poetry. America has no comparable figure—George Washington is not really in the Ho/Gandhi category, it seems to me. And America’s contemporary leaders, like LBJ and Nixon, were gross, vulgar, and violent. Can anyone imagine them writing poetry? I realized I felt a closer bond to Vietnamese peasants (who do read poetry, in fact) than to the folks around me, with whom I was supposed to feel connected, but didn't. And what I found during my recent trip to Vietnam was just that: a very gentle, very gracious people, with (amazingly enough) no bitterness toward the US, although we murdered 3 million of them and tortured tens of thousands. As a people, they are about as far apart from Americans as one might imagine. Now back home, I've been reading Neil Jamieson's book, Understanding Vietnam, and here's what he says:

"It is very difficult for Westerners, especially Americans, to apprehend how significant poetry can be as an expressive mechanism in society. For many of us poetry has connotations of elitism, obscurity, impracticality. Few of us read poetry, and fewer still have a real appreciation of it. But in Vietnam this is not the case. Many Vietnamese read poetry with enjoyment, commit it to memory, and recite poems to each other with unfeigned enthusiasm. Everyday speech is liberally sprinkled with poetic allusions. Even the poor and the illiterate imbibe deeply of a rich oral tradition that has incorporated much that originated in the written literature of the educated elite. Poetry has been and remains much more popular and important in Vietnam than in the United States."

As an example, Jamieson cites the immensely popular poem by Phan Khoi, "Old Love" (1932). The author tells how he was not able to marry his true love because of restrictive social mores, which required both of them to agree to the marriages that their respective parents had arranged. In a very real sense, their lives were destroyed. And then, 24 years later, quite by accident, they run into each other. The poem concludes:

"Twenty four years later... A chance encounter far away... Both heads had turned to silver; Had they not known each other well, Might they not have passed unknown? An old affair was recalled, no more. It was just a glance in passing!

...There still are corners to the eyes."

And this is the real truth of our lives, what shimmers for us at the deepest level of our being. The real revenge of the nerds is the life that goes its own way, that is not hip, one that the mainstream—at least in America—will never understand. A peripheral vision, if you will. Yes, my friends, there are still corners to the eyes.

©Morris Berman, 2014