Not That Simple

Pressure is a mountain on a mountain. Every day the kids rise at 6:45. They get up, wash their feet, brush their teeth. They slouch on top of cold, rickety desks and stools by 7:10, exhaling exhausted waves of fog in unison. They hardly stop until 8 pm. They’re in bed by 8:30. They have fun, when they can, between classes, at meals, in the quiet hours before sleep when they whisper so the teachers can’t hear. They play on the weekends in spite of their schoolwork, but some don’t have a chance, and some won’t let themselves.

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Fun is an enemy. No one would ever say it, but it is. It’s a distraction from the goal. That goal, taken in a big sense, is a matter of contention. The scaled down goal, though, is an exam in the middle of January. That is your measure. That is your worth. That is your goal. From 6:45 in the morning to 8:30 at night, this is where your energies should be focused. Your ability to reach the goal, today, is something like a minor plot point in a meticulously sequenced novel. It figures to have outsize, but unforeseen, reverberations on the climax. Every moment you edge closer to the goal, the pressure gets tighter. Lost time is magnified. You’re 10 years old. Everything you want contradicts accomplishment of the goal. It’s really, really hard to make sense of it. But, you’re not supposed to.

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I’m wearing a button-down plaid shirt and a purple/navy tie. I’ve got some frosting on my sleeve. My pants are tucked in, more or less. I look unintentionally… like a clown.

It’s the last day of school. I set a big cake down on the desk and the students cheer wildly. I smack the table. They stop. Before we eat the cake I wanted to tell them about the goal.

I told them a story accompanied by a poorly animated powerpoint…     url

“Two old men sat on a bench. One on the left and one on the right. It was a nice day. The man on the left wore a suit. The man on the right wore pants and a t-shirt that didn’t fit well. His pants had holes in them. He said to the man on the left, in the suit…

‘How have you been, my friend?’

‘I’m quite busy. I am tired. It’s nice to sit here with you.’

The man on the right blurted out…

‘My friend, you know, I envy you. Your clothes are so nice. Your house is so big. You eat fish everyday. I remember when we were in school. You worked so hard. We would play and you wouldn’t come out. You have earned your success. I remember how you earned it.’

‘I worked very hard. It is true. And I have had much success. But, you know, I have always envied you.’

‘How could that be?’ The man on the right said, surprised. ‘I have little. I’ve always worked in town. Look at my clothes.’

‘You said it yourself. When you were playing outside, I was studying. You had so much fun. When you passed love notes in middle school, I was too busy for love.’”

The students snickered.

“’Yes, but that was the past. Look what you have gained from all that work. Surely, you are satisfied.’

‘I am satisfied today. But, I will never be able to go back.’”

I asked them:

“Are you nervous for the exam?”

“Yes!”

“Do you have pressure from your teachers and from your parents?”

“Yes!”

“Do you think the test is important?”

“Yes!! Of course!”

“I agree. It is very important. But, don’t forget. There will be a test next week, there will be a test next year, and there will be many, many more tests.”

They sigh.

“There will be many chances. Remember, these tests, your scores, they are nothing but numbers. They are important, but they are not so important. Work hard, but remember, there are more important things than numbers. It may be hard to understand what I’m saying today, but it’s the truth, I promise. Let’s eat some cake.”

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I’m sure they didn’t really get it. But, then again, what do kids really get? That’s their greatest attribute. I’ve seen teachers give them the business. “You cry today, laugh tomorrow. Laugh today, cry tomorrow! Don’t you care? Don’t you want to be something better?” They hear it, but they can’t totally make sense of it yet. The anger, I guess they can make sense of that. The fact is, you tell a child what matters, the values of life and education. You tell them again and again until one day they just sort of accept it. Perhaps—but more likely not—someday they’ll realize it’s not that simple.

It’s very hard, it’s really impossible, for my kids to see outside the exam. I can understand that. The margin of error in their life is heartbreakingly thin. Coloring outside the lines is dangerous. I’m gone in a few months. I can help them on the exam. But, I can’t help them on the vast majority of exams, current and future. I can’t do much for them, tangibly, in the long term. I can’t do anything. But, they’re going to hear and fear about the future a lot. They’re going to subconsciously build a belief that today only matters as a function of tomorrow. They are going to believe it, believe that their only responsibility today is to improve the abstract concept of the future. I suppose if I can provide an alternative take—a fleeting, here today, gone tomorrow dissenting opinion—I have to. It’s good to confuse them. The very thought of a teacher questioning the importance of school or tests doesn’t match up. But, if I believed that that kind of success was the most important kind, I don’t think I’d be a very good teacher.

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A Strange Encounter with the Self

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note: Extremely trippy and mildly graphic

Nanning at 5:30 am. A few hours north of Vietnam.

I emerged from the airless stuff of the train station and found myself on the sidewalk. It was dark but for the red and green taxi lights and some neon blurs on buildings across the street. It rained, still. It had been raining for a while now, I gathered—the kind of rain whose presence makes people bitter. They screamed and yelled and pushed. No one is happy at 5:30 am in the rain. It is never a sought state. The rain fused with colored lights and made everything foggy and finite. I stopped for a while under cover of a bus stop and watched the stream.

After some time I hailed a cab to the only hostel in the city. Light started to peak out through the mist, revealing a dark green overgrown metropolis. Fully-grown queen palms came up in front of half-grown buildings, one after another. I got out by the hostel and sat down on a bright red stool in a noodle shop. Dawn broke, but not fully, as happens when night becomes day in the rain. The stillness of the city persisted. A man received a Styrofoam box of food and rode off on his motorcycle. I ordered pigs foot flat-noodle soup and sat down.

“What are you doing here?” The cook, a woman no more than 40, said eyeing me curiously.

“Just passing through.”

“To Vietnam?”

“No, just going east.”

She handed me the soup and a pair of plastic gloves for the pig’s foot. I tasted a hint of China, a hint of Southeast Asia. It is incredible how perfectly fluid location and culture can be in this part of the world, how flavors and accents blend in and out of each other with the seamlessness of a color wheel. I paid and walked down the misted green street and came upon the hostel. There was a little blue light beside the door and a bunch of cigarette packs scattered on the ground. It wasn’t open yet, so I sat down on a bench and looked at the street through the overgrowth. Very C.S. Lewis. The door, the wardrobe. I rang the doorbell a few moments later.

A small, bespectacled, Mr. Tumnus of a man peeped out—clearly roused from sleep by the sound of the bell—and I walked in with my bags. We whispered.

“Do you have space?”

“But, of course.”

We moved through the motions and I got a bed. There were few others in the hostel and no others awake. I sit down at a table in the main room.

The place is very small—cramped almost. It was clearly once a small house. It has a wooded feel, like a small cabin in the forest. It’s dim. There are no windows. Cozy. Eerily cozy, maybe. I stare at my computer for a while as the room steadily eases to life, slow, slow life. A few people filter solemnly out from the rooms.

“You goin’ to Vietnam?”

“No. just going east.”

“Oh. I’m headed that way, toward Vietnam that is. Trying to work out that visa. It ain’t easy.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Passport picture. Can’t find the place that takes ‘em. Can’t do much here anyways. Can’t speak that Chinese.”

“Well maybe I can help you.”

“Alright then. Maybe I can help you too. Name’s Bruce.”

“Taylor.”

“Good to meet you Taylor. You aren’t from the states per chance?” He sat down—Interrupting me from whatever I wasn’t doing on the computer.

“I am. Connecticut.”

“Alright then. I’m a teacher out here. Love it.” You aren’t the first, Bruce.

The hostel is very quiet. It’s still not yet 9:00. The dimness inside gives the air of being deep underground, completely unwitting of the world and things like time. Bruce gets going. He explains that he’s an ex-Marine (post-Nam), a former roadie, commodities broker, and construction project manager in Central Arizona in 2007. “Every time the phone rang, I made a thousand bucks, and that son of a bitch rang a lot.” We talked, as ex-pats do, about the hopeless state of America, and also about Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz, Wild Turkey, police and military warrior culture, the state of transportation in Lima, Peru. There is something refreshingly authentic about information coming from a superficially unlikely source: a girl with fake nails discussing the San Antonio Spurs’ motion offense, an offensive lineman talking about Handel’s Messiah, or an ex-Marine named Bruce talking about everything this dude was talking about. Bruce had talked and I had listened for the better part of an hour—or what seemed like an hour in that timeless universe.

“But, this is all entertainment talk.”

“Sorry? Entertainment talk?”

“Yes. Because, this…” he spreads his arms out, brings his fingers back to his temples and makes a popping sound, “is all an illusion.” He leans in and widens his eyes and says it in the way you’d imagine Gob from Arrested Development saying illusion.

“Oh?”

“Yes, yes. Everything your senses are telling you is real is nothing but the ego rising up and playing a trick on the body. See this?” He grabs an idle pack of tissue paper and raises it to eye level. “It isn’t real. Anyway, quantum physics proved it. Holographic principle. We live in a two-dimensional universe. But, I go farther. Nothing exists, but the self.”

“The self.”

“That which exists is the self. The body does not exist. It’s merely a vessel for suffering and desire. You and me, as we know it, do not exist. This.” He holds up the tissue paper. “Does not exist. The self is all. I am you and you are me. That bottle is me. Think about it. We’re talking right now. Who’s talking? Is Taylor talking? Is Bruce talking? No. The self is communicating with the self. There is no conversation. There is no room. There is nothing.” He raises his eyebrows flings the packet on the table. His eyes get wide again. “There never was.”

Maybe I hadn’t slept enough, but for a fleeting moment, I came unglued—like my consciousness lurched and only with conscious mental effort could it be laid back on its tracks. I’ve never gotten to that feeling before, never without psychedelic assistance at least. For a brief hypnotic moment, nothing, including my own mind, was under my control. A strong, but fearful desire comes over me to reach up and touch all the things in the silent, vague room. Just to make sure.

“And feelings. Feelings don’t exist. Of course, this isn’t me telling you. This is us, the self, telling you. Feelings are created by the ego. Love, hate, anger, compassion. All that, is simply a barrier to self-realization. ‘He who is free from the notion of ego, whose intellect is unattached, though he annihilates all the worlds, he slayeth not, nor is he bound by the results of his actions.’ That’s what the Maharshi said. Say a bunch of people are machine-gunned right there. Right there.” He points to the still hallway. “Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist. Now, I’d never do anything like that, because what that hurts is the self, because, of course, this is all the self.”

I shake my head and blink, only to recover my own—what I perceive to be my own—mind.

He leans back and relaxes. “You know, I obviously can’t talk about this stuff to everyone. It fucks with people. Ruffles their faith.”

“No kidding.”

“This body is hungry. Shall we eat?”

For the rest of the day and evening we walk aimlessly through the inclemently mysterious fog of an urban tropical rainstorm. Somewhere during his rolling parable, I help Bruce get his visa and ticket to Vietnam.

“Thanks for helping me out man,” Bruce says.

“My—our—pleasure.”

“You’ve done a karmic service, you know.”

We float steadily back toward the hostel and seek refuge in a small Muslim restaurant. Two plates of soup noodles arrive.

“The fact is,” Bruce says—his expression visible through two warm clouds of steam, “once you have devoted your life to self-realization, to knowing who you are, you will achieve it. You will be consumed by it. Nothing, nothing can stop you.” He pays.

The next morning, he was gone.

Late that evening, I stood once again in front of the train station, graced by raindrops and wind and surrounded by muted commotion and neon lights, preparing to head east. I flicked a cigarette into a puddle and began savoring a chocolate bar: the abandonment of desires would wait, at the very least until the end of that Snickers. It was phenomenally strange, obviously. I do perhaps, in some way, feel as though I had entered an alternate truth—some place where reality exists in and only in the fluid conception of the mind.

I’m not even sure it happened. Not even sure he existed. If you asked him he’d tell you, of course, that he’s as real as nothing itself.