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A Body of Words


Misfits: as a child everyone around me (including my father) was chasing money, without a single thought applied to asking why they were doing that or if doing so was legitimate. People chased money because: a) they had to as a means of survival, and b) because extra chasing, if you were "smart enough," meant extra money that others didn't have. You had it, because someone else didn't have it. This was not a zero-sum game, as the saying goes. Thus, the outcomes of competition is a measure of worth, and also self-worth. How did we get to this? One hypothesis is that it's promoted by the people who own the country. If they can convince us to believe the ideology of the meritocracy, then they can ensure that we don't talk to each other or look out for the other guy because if we did, that's a sign of weakness. If I patent my secret idea for a better butter knife, I'll get rich. If I tell you about it, you'll steal the idea from me, and you'll get rich. That's the entrepreneurial spirit! One for none, and none for all!.
 
Now, there's a serious downside to not being focused on chasing money. Everyone knows that that is, and the economic system works that way to keep us all disciplined—in line, fearful, cagey. Speaking of cagey, every person (more or less, hahaa) is stuck in a cultural cage. Me, especially. A few people have had the good fortune after applying themselves, to slip out. We all have known a person or two or read about one.
 
So, where am I going with this? Not sure. Rather than chase money, I wanted to understand how the world worked. I was lucky or else sufficiently motivated such that objects in my immediate environment became talismans of the seeker. I learned nothing from my parents, except that I should avoid interaction with them because, as noted, my father was a money chaser. My mother didn’t much exist. She came from a generation and a geography where women did not exist, and she made a life of nonexistence. I existed, a little bit, and didn’t chase money, so I went off on my own private life. My childhood friends were books. Out of sheer hypocrisy, and the need to offer themselves a private pretense that they cared about ideas, my parents bought two ostentatious, leather-bound book collections: The Great Books, and the World Book Encyclopedia and Dictionary. My parents never devoted a single minute to those books. I never saw either of them ever crack open a single volume, nor did either ever say a single word about the books. The books came in the door one day, and there they were in their very own bookcase. The Great Books sat in the living room to impress visitors who never came, whereas the prosaic World Books sat in the den, outside my bedroom door.  I didn’t understand the Great Books. They were imposing in language while siting in the living room; there more to impress anyone entering the front door. The American living room is where adults pretend to be someone they are not. One never catches hell in the living room. It’s in the den where the yelling starts. Although I cannot claim to have read even one entire book, the glances I took when no one was around told me of another world and of other times. The very presence of the Great Books and my occasional perusal of a few pages from The Odyssey and Freud, wrenched open a chasm of desire to know more about the world of which my parents never spoke, and my teachers did not seem to know. The world of ideas; the world neither parent nor teacher knew. I devoted, by contrast, many hours paging through the World Book. I was fascinated by the human anatomy section with its transparent overlays depicting the human body. The Great Ideas (presumptuously and with glaring racial bias) offered the other side of the world of science presented in the World Book. If I knew anything about geography it wasn’t from the classroom at Madison Junior High School. It was from sitting down with a random volume of the World Book.
 
This essay didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t read Darwin or Hume until much, much later, but the names were there in my cognitive pantheon. I cannot over-emphasize the stark dichotomy between the anti-intellectual, anti-engaged world of my parents, and the world exploding inside those books. It was by the very good fortune of my parents shallowness, their pretense, and their outright fakery that I was introduced to the world of ideas and of science. What must have been a desperate attempt on their part to have meaning beyond their own muteness and money sucking (and alcohol downing), and what was surely a weakness for door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen who ensured them that good parents care for their children by buying stuff, and by-the-way the neighbors down the street ordered yesterday. Beyond all this, some tiny fragment of rational thinking in their skulls might have driven them to try to do something for me, that they could not do for themselves, and that their parents before them did not do for them. Life is complicated. My parents, both of them beat me regularly, but they also bought The Great Books, and the World Book Encyclopedia. I survived the vicious physical abuse by exploring a fascinating world of ideas and of things unknown to me, and as phantasmagorical as black holes and the human heart, and as sublime as a snippet from a Shakespeare sonnet and a paragraph from Plato.
 
I sought out the world of science, first, saving the dangerous world of ideas for dessert. 
 
The power of those books was lodged in their very physical, corporeal existence. The heft, the balance in my hand, the texture and color of leather cover, the sound and feel of leaves of paper flipped, their imposing incongruent presence, gave presence to my own curiosity beyond the incalculable banality of a house that would never be a home.  More than the gravity of the printed words, the gravity of a book can be assessed by ascertaining it’s mass in open human hands. A book substantiates the gravity of my own existence. A book connects the internal with the external, safely, through reflection, it re-enters the internal landscape transformed. The gravity of the human condition, and the profound absence of connectedness in American culture at large, looms large in each volume.  I read, therefore I am. 

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