Lars and the Real Girl: A Funky Film with a Sex Doll But Not a Single Sex Scene

Is it believable that an emotionally repressed young man so psychologically clouded with unresolved grief (his parents died in the not-so-distant past) could purchase a life-size sex doll apparently 100% anatomically accurate and fall in love with her/it and so delude himself into believing they do indeed have a "real relationship" involving everthing (including communication) but not ... sex?  Probably not.  And what's even more unbelievable:  that a young man could purchase a sex doll and not have sex with it/her, or that he could buy her and believe her to be real female flesh and blood?  I don't know, but thankfully, since I really liked this movie despite its implausibility (the plot's plausibility is, after all, not a critical point here); what's critical is that we suspend belief, because no way in hay does an entire town go along with his ridiculous delusion in our so-called real world universe of "reality".

I found in Lars and the Real Girl a fantasy or fable about healing and working through grief and then getting on with our lives.  So, in order to understand and enjoy this work, you can't take it quite so literally.  Otherwise, then of course, it's lame, the gag is old thirty seconds after Lars' delusion displays itself.  But watched as a fable the film is downright delightful, demonstrating human compassion and tolerance in the face of extremely weird, awkward scenarios involving Lars and his "girlfriend" (the party scene, for instance, where he introduces "her" to everybody).

Psychologically speaking, Lars' relationship with his sex doll is symbolic of his non-communicative, imaginary relationship to his mother (pardon the Freudianism, but Freud did nail a few things), so of course Lars never has sex with it/her, but works out, in time, all his pent up feelings of loss, sadness, and anger at the doll -- his deceased mother -- in order to extricate himself from the emotional quicksand of unresolved pain, loss and grief.  That he goes to a psychiatrist, er, takes the sex doll to go see the psychiatrist for her problem, sheds light on his anger at his mother -- anger that he's too delicate emotionally to face -- since she's the one who needs the shrink, not me; but also his desire, despite his fear of what he'll uncover, to somehow sift through his confusion and figure out the convoluted complexity of what he perceives (stuck in the child's-eye-view) as abandonment; that is, her death that left him feeling all alone.

This is pretty fascinating stuff, actually, if you're so inclined, bent on getting a grip on the psychopathological side of life.  I won't reveal the ending, other than to say it's quite touching and psychologically astute.  Don't be put off by what you may have heard -- there's absolutely no sleaze or sex involved whatsoever in this story as perhaps understandably anticipated.  That underlying and ultimately unconsummated sexual tension works quite well here, much as it did in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, enhancing the richness and depth of the storytelling.  Netflix it quick!

Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning by David Markson

In 1951, David Markson, of eventual Wittgenstein's Mistress renown, wrote his 30,000 word master's thesis on Under the Volcano.  Nothing substantive at that time, only four years removed from Under the Volcano's publication, had been written on it, except for, well, Markson's thesis.  Lowry liked what Markson wrote about his novel.  And the two became fast friends the final years of Lowry's life; and Malcolm, when he was sober enough, which unfortunately wasn't very often, mentored David Markson's then burgeoning literary/academic career.

First edition, 1978
In 1978, Markson went back to his old thesis, saw what was lacking therein, saw how much more he still had to say about the Volcano, and turned his master's thesis into a book of insightful criticism upon it.

Sven Birkerts writes a perceptive and incisive introduction to Malcolm Lowry's Volcano that gets to the real meat and bones of the Volcano's doomed protagonist, the Consul's — Geoffrey Firmin's — existential predicament, cutting through Firmin's cracked, alcoholic mask.  Birkerts cites a question in an excerpt from a letter the Consul has composed, that not only sums up the Consul's philosophy, but undoubtedly Malcolm Lowry's philosophy too:

"Is there any ultimate reality, external, conscious and ever-present etc. etc. that can be realized by any such means that may be acceptable to all creeds and religions and suitable to all climes and countries?"

Birkerts then responds to the Consul (to Lowry), with the following:

"It is the great question. What lies behind the phantasmic shimmer of the here and now? Are there larger meanings to be found? Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"

I guess the answer depends on how whomever responds to the question defines "survive".  I'd say that "haunted mind," quoted above, can survive, but "survive" by definition doesn't necessitate "living well".  And that's the psychological, inter-relational crux of Under the Volcano: its poignant portrayal of a sad and squandered and profoundly disconnected life not lived well.

Malcolm in the Mescal Bottle
How do we, who've read the book, answer it's core cosmic question, "Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"  Can we live well alone?  Can we live well when we're surrounded by so many people and yet so much loneliness and unhappiness and addiction retains its vice grip upon our lives?  When we're, quoting the astute Neil Peart (of Rush) lyrics, "Alone and yet together like two passing ships?"  Can we?

I have read the book entire, Under the Volcano, and yet cannot answer the universal question it raises with much conviction either way; which is part of the reason I'd like to return to it again with David Markson as my guide leading me through, searching its pages for the answers, assuming they exist, socked away as they are in the labyrinthine mythology and allusions under- pinning it.  I'd also like to return to a closer reading of the Volcano because I know I missed a ton of those deeper meanings and layers, the story's symbolic and elusive substrata of coded data that Lowry so painstakingly applied to his classic narrative like the nuanced brush strokes of an Impressionist.  Markson deconstructs each brush stroke he can locate within Under the Volcano, as he encyclopedically expounds his talents of linguistic, literary archaeology (or would literary volcanology be a better term?) exploring the Volcano's vast and mysterious — and metaphysical — subterranean chambers.

My copy of the 1965 hardcover reissue,
 J. B. Lippincott Company
Markson claimed that next to Ulysses, Under the Volcano was the most myth- and symbol-laden novel of the twentieth century.  So it's not just a book about a doomed self-destructive drunk, I think is the obvious message communicated by Markson's laborious analysis, though super-cynical or superficial readers, I suppose, could "read" the Volcano that way.

But, again, despite what it's many moralistic naysayers may say, Under the Volcano is patently not just a dumb book about a drunk.  It's not because the Consul, in Lowry's hands, has an uncanny knack for offering a tweaked — yet prescient — perspective of Day of the Dead events, even though he's constantly intoxicated, hammered on practically every page.  The Consul eyewitnesses, watching the world through his cryptic, alcoholic lenses, an hallucinatory collage of culture and politics and faith and intrigue and memory/sense perceptions swarming all around and within him, invisible to his cantina acquaintances (mostly the bartenders) and understandably exasperated ex-wife, that elevates him to sage-like status even despite his despicable failures of character.  This strange and complexly flawed mystic man, Geoffrey Firmin, damaged yes beyond belief, beyond hope, beyond redemption, but still a man somehow, brimming over with eerie spiritual enlightenment his last day alive in Mexico; and David Markson shows us exactly how it's about that — his transcendence — and not just about some worthless drunk in a bar south of the border committing slow suicide literally 24/7.

What Stuart Gilbert first did for Ulysses, David Markson did for Under the Volcano.  And neither accomplishments are small feats in the history of literary criticism.


Incomplete Yammering on some Provocative Plays, Including Peter Handke's Offending the Audience

Plays generally just don't do it for me. They've got to have that Death of a Salesman kind of ooomphish profundity and power to quicken my blood. That's a play moves me deeply.

Drinks Before Dinner, by E.L. Doctorow, was another play that held my attention the way most plays don't. Imagine attending a dinner party in honor of a local politician, surrounded by friends (at least you thought everyone seated around you was your friend!) and one of the dinner guests shows up with a gun! Shows up, to the shock of his wife, with his own pathetic power tripping political agenda of possible violence and bloodshed ... It's particularly harrowing and relevant reading Drinks Before Dinner in light of recent tragic events in Tucson, involving Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  Too painfully relevant, perhaps, too real, but undeniably powerful, Drinks Before Dinner.

So, few plays move me, right? It's part of my problem as well navigating the historical drama by Friedrich von Schiller, Wallenstein, too, since it reads and feels to me more like some ancient archaic exercise in wearing sackcloth and ashes long-suffering, than being entertaining or remotely fun.

Well, a few weeks back, while I'm on a plays kick, I had the good fortune, out hunting with two of my kids at our favorite local haunts, finding a book called Kaspar and Other Plays by Peter Handke.

Handke was a radical for his time among playwrights.  Handke wrote himself what had to be considered at the time (1966 in Germany; translated into English in 1969) the anti-plays of all anti-plays ever staged, Offending the Audience and Self-Accusation. I read the former but still need to read the latter. But man, how shocking it must have been being among those early audiences there to see a play -- probably expecting a conventional play with props and plots and drama -- and instead, out walk four performers who speak in turns, sometimes overlapping, directly (and accusingly) at the audience the entire play long. At either a quickly becoming angry or astonished audience, I suspect.

Offending the Audience reads more like a work of angry philosophy set in short story form -- or the form of a purposely obnoxious rant! -- than a more conventional script. Listen to the four performers (and we don't know who of the four is speaking; Handke merely instructs his speakers to speak at will and get into some kind of communal flow together); so listen to them speak to their audience about their audience:

"If you remain together, you will be a theatre party. You will go into a restaurant. You will think of tomorrow. You will gradually find your way back into reality. You will be able to call reality harsh again. You will be sobered up. You will lead your own lives again. You will no longer be a unit. You will go from one place to different places

"But before you leave you will be offended.

"We will offend you because offending you is also one way of speaking to you. By offending you, we can be straight with you. We can switch you on. We can eliminate the free play. We can tear down a wall. We can observe you.

"While we are offending you, you won't just hear us, you will listen to us. The distance between us will no longer be infinite. Due to the fact that we're offending you, your motionlessness and your rigidity will finally become overt. But we won't offend
you, we will merely use offensive words which you yourselves use. We will contradict ourselves with our offenses. We will mean no one in particular. We will only create an acoustic pattern. You won't have to feel offended. You were warned in advance, so you can feel quite unoffended while we're offending you. Since you are probably thoroughly offended already, we will waste no more time before thoroughly offending you, you chuckleheads ..."

Peter Handke, perhaps the Lenny Bruce or Charlie Kaufman of playwrights: enraging the audience as art form.


A Brief Examination of Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning by David Markson

I've been going through a lot of non-fiction introductions recently because I got a slew of titles in "Barnes & Noble's Rediscoveries" series over the Holidays in their bargain bins for $2.48 each.  Woo hoo!  They are: A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag; Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, by Ted Hughes;

On Moral Fiction by John Gardner; and lastly, a pretty rare find I about fainted upon seeing (I couldn't believe it was sitting all alone in a freaking B&N bargain bin:) Malcolm Lowry's Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning by David Markson. 

In 1951, Markson, of eventual Wittgenstein's Mistress fame -- a short novel of two or three line observations made by a mysterious (has she lost her marbles or is she just lost?) character whom we're never quite sure is sane or not, as she believes she's the last person alive on the planet -- wrote his 30,000 word master's thesis on Under the Volcano.  Nothing substantive at that time, only four years removed from Under The Volcano's publication, had been written on it, except for, well, Markson's thesis.  Lowry liked what Markson wrote.  And the two became fast friends the final years of Lowry's life, and Malcolm, when he was sober enough, mentored Markson's then burgeoning literary/academic career. 

In 1978, Markson went back to his old thesis, saw what was lacking therein, saw how much more he still had to say about the Volcano, and turned that long post-grad essay of his into a book of very specific and insightful criticism upon it.

Sven Birkerts writes a perceptive and incisive introduction to Malcolm Lowry's Volcano that gets to the real meat and bones of the Volcano's doomed protagonist, the Consul -- Geoffrey Firmin -- and his cracked, alcoholic psyche. Birkerts cites a question in an excerpt from a letter The Consul has composed, that not only sums up the Consul's philosophy, but undoubtedly Malcolm Lowry's philosophy too:

"Is there any ultimate reality, external, conscious and ever-present etc. etc. that can be realized by any such means that may be acceptable to all creeds and religions and suitable to all climes and countries?

Birkert then responds to The Consul (to Lowry), with the following:

"It is the great question. What lies behind the phantasmic shimmer of the here and now? Are there larger meanings to be found? Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"

Let me repeat Birkert's response.  I think it's vital and needs repeating for this discussion: "Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection".

I guess the answer depends on how whomever responds to the question defines "survive". I'd say that "haunted mind," quoted above, can survive, but "survive" by definition doesn't necessitate "living well".  And that's the psychological, inter-relational crux of Under the Volcano: it's poignant portrayal of a sad and squandered and profoundly disconnected life not lived well.  How do we, who've read the book, answer it's core cosmic question, "Can a mind haunted by intimations of connection survive the endless abrasion of living without that connection?"  Can we live well alone?  Can we live well alone when we're surrounded by so many people; when there's so many people and yet so much loneliness and addiction?  When we're, quoting Neil Peart's (of Rush) lyrics, "Alone and yet together like two passing ships?" 

I have read the book entire, but now I think I'd like to return to it again with David Markson's help guiding me through the labyrinthine mythology and allusions underpinning it, because I know I missed a ton of those deeper meanings and layers, the story's substrata that Lowry so painstakingly applied to his narrative like the subtle strokes of an impressionist.  Markson deconstructs each stroke he can find out of Under the Volcano, as he encyclopedically implements his talents at linguistic, literary archaeology, exploring the Volcano's hidden chambers.

Markson claims that next to Ulysses, Under the Volcano is the most myth and symbolic laden novel of the twentieth century.  It's not just a book about a doomed drunk, though cynical or superficial readers, I suppose, could "read" it that way.  It's not because our doomed drunk anti-hero, in Lowry's hands, has an uncanny knack for offering a tweaked -- yet prescient -- perspective of local Day of the Dead events, as he's able to eyewitness, watching the world through his mystic, alcoholic lenses, an hallucinatory kaleidoscope of culture and sense perceptions swarming all around him, invisible to his cantina mates and ex-wife, brimming with (granted) outright psychosis, but also eerie enlightenment and even spirituality, his last day alive in Mexico.

What Stuart Gilbert first did for Ulysses; David Markson did for Under the Volcano.  And neither are small feats in the history of literary criticism.


Random Quote & Observations Reading David Foster Wallace's, The Broom of the System

David Foster Wallace describes a kiss, through the eyes of Rick Vigorous, as only DFW possibly could, in The Broom of the System ...

"Her lips are full and red and tend to wetness and do not ask but rather demand, in a pout of liquid silk, to be kissed. I kiss them often, I admit it, it is what I do, I am a kisser, and a kiss with Lenore is, if I may indulge a bit for a moment here, not so much a kiss as it is a dislocation, a removal and rude transportation of essence from self to lip, so that it is not so much two human bodies coming together and doing the usual things with their lips as it is two sets of lips spawned together and joined in kind from the beginning of post-Scarsdale time, achieving full ontological status only in subsequent union and trailing behind and below them, as they join and become whole, two now utterly superfluous fleshly bodies, drooping outward and downward like the tired stems of overblossomed flora, trailing shoes on the ground, husks. A kiss with Lenore is a scenario in which I skate with buttered soles over the moist rink of lower lip, sheltered from weathers by the wet warm overhang of upper, finally to crawl between lip and gum and pull the lip to me like a child's blanket and stare over it with beady, unfriendly eyes out at the world external to Lenore, of which I no longer wish to be a part."

Lenore's father is the owner of "Stonecipheco Baby Food Products". I find it fascinating, keeping his later novel in mind, Infinite Jest, how often "baby food" is clustered in such a way in the narrative with other phrases that it's given a very negative connotation. "Baby food" and the character, Candy Mandible, I think, prefigure the idea of emotional and psychological infantilism so prevalently depicted -- and so mercilessly skewered by DFW -- in Infinite Jest, and satirized also even in his funniest and most famous novella-length essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," in which he riffs on the word "pampered" that's practically every other word in Celebrity Cruise's brochures; "pampered" being the altruistic promise (for a hefty price!) how the crew of the Caribbean Celebrity Cruise ship, Zenith, will treat you on deck 24/7.  "Pampered" can't help DFW think of "Pampers Diapers": infantilism: a regression to babyhood for each cruise liner passenger the duration of their Caribbean vacation.

There's also The Great Ohio Desert, precursor to The Great Concavity of IJ, the former which the Governor of Ohio, in 1972, has had purposely created by the firm, Industrial Desert Design, "who did Kuwait," because he believes that the people of Ohio need a great barren expanse to enjoy, that I found hysterical and more than just a gag, which The Broom is often criticized as -- a book of gags and inside literary/philosophy jokes -- because the absurd oddities of weird details all start adding up, funny or not, to sublimely substantive, philosophical meanings and leanings.  Just read your Ludwig Wittgenstein!

I think, as well, that DFW had some kind of thing for the word, "hideously," as it's used, seems to me, with even more frequency in The Broom than it was in IJ, not to mention "hideous" being a word in the title of another of his less famous works of fiction.

Final observation for now: If I didn't already have my handle, "EnriqueFreeque," my handle would then be borrowed (it would have to be!) from an eating establishment featured in The Broom: "Enrique's House of Cheese".


Jesus' Son: Stories by Denis Johnson

I've always been drawn to intensely literate depictions of squandered lives in various states of disrepair via the chemical catalysts of substances and/or booze.  Whether it's Leaving Las Vegas -- in my mind as bleak and brilliant as Malcolm Lowry's bacchanalian masterpiece, Under the Volcano -- or Permanent Midnight; or, even, going back a ways (a couple centuries or so) to Thomas De Quincey's, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, I'm always moved by the emotional and psychological rawness of the harrowing accounts -- and reminded -- by these addict's sad stories, of the kind of person I'm glad I'm not (knock on wood) and never hope to be, again.

Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son: Stories (1992), for me, is as close to being high on dope that one can become from merely ingesting words and sentences and paragraphs through one's eyes and, if read aloud, ears.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas doesn't come close to Jesus' Son's acute hallucinatory intensity, and that's no jab at Hunter S. Thompson.  Perhaps Trainspotting would rank up there as highly with me as well, were I able to navigate at least half of its nearly indecipherable, incoherent heavy accent that gives even Ozzy Osbourne a run for its money in interpreting what the hell was just said.  If there's a Junky Canon of Literature, next to Burroughs' and Hubert Selby's finest work, Denis Johnson too deserves a slot.

In A Fan's Notes (another boozer-loser's masterpiece), and the book that upon its publication in 1968 finally made its heretofore author's drunkard's existence mean something more than merely another wasted alcoholic's life, Frederick Exley said, speaking through one of his recently sobered-up characters in a rehab facility, that "alcoholism is hopelessness."

Assuming Exley's pithy, but profound, assessment is true, and it certainly rings true for me in its cut-through-the-crap clarity shed of all that extraneous, overly-analytical psychological hullabaloo of excuses your average drunk might stake his or her "disease" on, then, I ask, what the hell does that make heroin addiction?  Comatose despondency?  Suicide?  I mean, what's more hopeless, besides child starvation, surviving under a tyrant's rule, or being on an airplane that's going down, than heroin?

Jesus' Son nails that hopelessness like no other book on the subject I've read.  I can't say enough how much I appreciated the unreliable, deluded, deranged, doped-up, just plain odd perspective this unnamed narrator brings to some bizarre scenarios he encounters.  Whether he's wading surreally through the slow-mo aftermaths of a head on car crash that killed the driver but left him unscathed in "Car Crash While Hitchhiking;" or, stripping copper wire out of a friends former habitation, hacking all day through dry wall, to earn enough scrap metal dough so that he and his friend can go out drinking that night, in "Work;" or, the black (unintentionally funny) comic reactions of the narrator witnessing an unfortunate man walk into the E.R. with a knife sticking in his eye, where our anti-hero works as a constantly inebriated nurse's attendant, in "Emergency," I can't stop thinking to myself as I read, "this can't be; this is crazy," while remaining mesmerized by this guys weird (but not so weird as to be unbelievable) thought processes.

And I think Denis Johnson's characterization of this no-name junky alcoholic is indeed an accurate portrayal.  It's an evocative and artistic (not to mention deeply poetic; my God, Johnson's poetic prose!) glimpse inside the messed up mind of addiction.  It's terse inside that moody, manipulative mind; it's disjointed as a shoulder separation; it's non-sensical sometimes while remaining cogent (the paradox of it!); it's past credulity yet makes perfect sense; it's beyond blackly comic (try Dr. Strangelove on steroids), like being miniaturized and shot inside the very user's veins along with the spoon-heated smack straight into the bloodstream and brain of one sick and pathetically twisted (and yet so endearing and sympathetic) individual, so that you can see how he sees, think how he thinks, feel how he feels -- all of this, the dense under-statedness of it and the lack of fleshing out of the details or making complete narrative connections in the stories -- all of it -- by Denis Johnson's deft designJohnson showcases the agony and sometimes unintended artfulness of the addicted mind in revelatory ways.  A marvel of a little book. 

This hopeless narrator of Jesus' Son literally perceives reality not in any manner the non-addict can ever hope to recognize, relate to, or understand -- and it's that difference in reality-perception captured so well by Denis Johnson that elevates Jesus' Son above the other better known and lionized classics of drug and booze literature.


"Racetrack Meditation" by Peter Weissman

"Racetrack Meditation" works quite well as a stand alone short story, though it's taken from Peter Weissman's second metamemoir, Digging Deeper: A Memoir of the Seventies.  In this self-deprecating, humorous piece on what goes on inside the racetrack bettor's mind (or at least in one racetrack bettor's mind) we see a mind tapping into its Jewish mystical roots and hippie-era magical thinking, while simultaneously attempting to empty his mind along Buddhist sensibilities, all in an effort to win the bet, to pick the right horse, to walk away from the racetrack richer.  So, does tapping into his eclectic philosophy's mantras induce him to make the winning pick?  Regardless, the story is a winning metaphor on just how damn difficult it is to make important decisions sometimes ...

Digging Deeper - A Memoir Of The Seventies
click on the image to buy the book


On Check Day, after delivering the ghetto routes, I’d drive the half-ton truck away from those streets, looking for a deserted spot where I wouldn’t be bothered while eating lunch. Beneath a leafy tree would have been nice, but finding one in the flatlands wasn’t easy, so I’d usually settle for a slant of shade cast by a warehouse near the docks, eat my sandwich in the truck, and peruse the bulk mail left in the tray, mainly the distinctive fund-raising appeals from Reverend Ike and his ilk:  Sleep with this piece of prayer shawl and cure hives, blisters, warts, and otherwise blemished skin.  “From Reverend Broom, Palace of the Swept Clean, Odessa, Texas; and Pastor Love, Oklahoma City Chapel of Hope; and Giddings Birdsong, Locator, Healer, Fortune Teller:  Place this piece of blessed cloth under your pillow, sleep on your faith, and your loved one will surely stop drinking, whoring, philandering, stealing … Bind this bracelet to your wrist and ward off arthritis, rheumatism, and impure thoughts … “
With well-planned precision, these inducements to God always arrived on the same day as the checks:  “Don’t waste that money on drugs and demon liquor; send it here!” And having purposely put those bundles aside, I would later sneak them into my car, take them home, and, no matter how hot it was, burn them in the fireplace, which otherwise went unused. It hardly made the job tolerable, but at least, once a month, I felt socially redeemed.
Yet I had something in common with the flock I rescued from charlatan appeals, for I was looking for answers too. It had gotten to the point that I’d become my own holy roller, believing that horses, of all things, might rescue me from the job I hated. Like many of my carrier colleagues, I’d rush to the track to catch the last three races after work—admission free, courtesy of the racetrack management—the blue-gray uniforms entitling us to special respect. Only this was my day off, and here I was again, bent on outwitting the hoi polloi, the other pie-in-the-sky plungers (whose checks I might have saved from Reverend Ike), to turn gambling into a sure thing, make a bundle, and not have to work like a draft horse anymore.
In truth, my detour to the track only made my life less profitable. After losing a modest sum—for in truth I was more cautious than the typical full-fledged gambler—I’d finger the anonymous bills left in my pocket when I got home, loath to take them out and look at the revealing denominations. Knowing I’d lost, again, I wanted to believe I’d done no worse than breaking even. And when I eventually did take out the singles and fives, which had been tens and twenties when I left work, I’d crumple the bills beyond easy recognition while tossing them on the dresser, then quickly turn away to do more significant things, the specifics of which eluded me in retrospect.
Thus, out of desire and self-delusion, did my racetrack meditations begin.
That, and the benign astrological aspect of planets that happened to bring me a  downtown route one day and a bookstore bin where I came upon an esoteric work, a primer titled How to Win at the Track. Curious, I purchased it, and that night encountered the following in the very first chapter:
Count your money before you get to the track and again when
you leave. Don’t shove those crinkled bills into a drawer. Spread
them out on the bureau and take a good look. Face facts.
Imagine my amazement. A spiritual guide written, published, and discarded in a bin—three for a buck—with me in mind. It seemed divine intervention.
Following its counsel, I faced up to what I’d secretly known all along, and thus attracted further truths I’d avoided: that I wasn’t superior to the racetrack bunglers I’d thought to outwit. My losses, clearly seen, told me I was as benighted as everyone else.
Thus humbled, I found myself capable of picking an occasional winner.
I don’t recall the name of that first winning horse, perhaps because it instantly became the vehicle to a greater reward, having kept me alive in the daily double. But I recall the second winner, Bold Venture, thundering down the homestretch, fairly flying like Pegasus over the dirt track, leaving the field farther behind with each enormous stride, crossing the finish line a good five lengths in front, securing a $67.60 double.
If before I’d been lost, wandering the track after work, ineffectual, overwhelmed by the certainties of bettors I overheard citing pedigree and weight, jockey and distance; unable to locate an internal logic of my own, betting wildly with the odds or against them, resorting to astrology and omen, at one point finding myself scouring the cement infield for impossible, discarded winning tickets, like the lowest of the low in the racetrack pecking order, now that I actually calculated the results when I got home, I held a valid claim to win. And even when I lost, felt bigger, if not better.
Having thus done the prep work of accepting monetary reality for what it was, I embarked on a deeper, meditative path: to observe myself while handicapping the horses; in order to make money, of course, while at the same time achieving spiritual transcendence.
 If you find equating gambling with self-knowledge sacrilegious, what can I say? God is everywhere; in location, method, and revelation. On a picturesque ocean shoreline, in the recesses of a pristine forest, even in a traffic jam on the freeway.  (Pastor Love used a version of this line of thinking before trotting out his list of miraculous cures.) You can stare at a spot on a wall to lose your identity; visualize a topaz sky overlooking pastoral green meadows to affect a mood, while breathing deeply; chant a Sanskrit phrase until your head swims in similitude of what some consider transcendence. Or meld your mind with appearance, situation, and circumstance, and abstract the numerical properties of an animal in confronting the Golgotha that is the fifth race.
Why the fifth? Because puffy clouds mass in the pale sky over the Berkeley Hills in the distance, and it seems that a palpable penates of the track hovers nearby, perhaps in response to my modest success so far. Which is to say that at the moment, I’m breaking even, coasting on the ebb and flow of things, feeling optimistic but not euphoric. I’m in balance.
And why not the fifth? One race is pretty much like any other, when you get right down to it.
Ten horses are listed: one out of competition too long, two slated to run an unfamiliar distance, three hopelessly beaten their last few times out, four that can conceivably win today. I’ve come to this conclusion after studying past performances in the Racing Form, applying certain mathematical principles from How to Win at the Track, and weighing these facts, figures, and a set of assumptions with the arbiter of common sense, which bears careful scrutiny, lest it mislead with extraneous influences.
A few grandstand seats away, a disheveled character seemingly roughed up by fate sits with a pink tout sheet in hand. Seeing me glance at him, he grins, revealing discolored teeth, and says,  “The four horse is the class of this race, right?” while gesturing at the dirt oval.
A question hidden in an assertion. A wishful statement seeking confirmation.
The usual crushing feeling of inadequacy in proximity to craven neediness courses through me. What can I say to alleviate his suffering? I don’t know which horse will win this race … though I now suspect that the four horse won’t.
I look at my Racing Form, notice that it’s among my four possibilities, and boldly delete it.
Which leaves three horses. Two are front-runners, and one prefers to storm from well off the pace with the kind of finishing kick that brings the crowd—and me—to its feet in a screaming pitch.
And therein lies what seems my greatest meditative obstacle in this race: the clash between cool, unsentimental analysis, which doesn't bog down in style configurations; and personal inclination, which does.
It’s difficult to see the indiscriminate nature of our personal affections. Books, movies, and music that make an impression; familiar language and mannerism; particular people, places, and recollected ambience that render certain moments memorable, and then influential; habits, predilections, convictions, opinions. Were I as indifferent to the  past as the unlikely buddha who’d come to a racetrack on his day off to parlay enlightenment with a modest bet, I would have no such attachments. Indeed, I try to be this blank slate, and at times even succeed. But more often nostalgia and sentiment color my thoughts, and all I can do to prevent them from attaching me to a Rorschach horse is observe the cloying influences, in order to set them firmly aside.
So now I study my three possible winners, and focusing first on the one I know I'd like to see win, disclaim personal interest in Attachment, the horse who comes from behind. Is this ostentatious disclaimer a trick of the mind, a pirouette around the long held belief that my intelligence and abilities were for so long misunderstood? And is the rejection thus as much of an attachment as embracing the animal would be? That is, has it led me to oppose a horse out of the same biases that attract me to it? Have I actually disengaged, seen this horse (and myself) for what it is, or through overcompensation short-shrifted the animal?
I’m not sure …
Stick to facts, I tell myself, while noting the colt’s unimpressive pedigree—its mother an honest slogger, its father a hardworking claimer—and trying not to commiserate with its prodigal history: it won its first race eight months ago, after dropping into low claiming company following several dismal performances (not unlike me in junior high school), then showed flashes of brilliance, hit the board in a couple of races and climbed into somewhat respectable company, where it finds itself today.
This Attachment intrigues me; I can’t deny it. But I also know that were I to bet it over a more likely winner, and were he to lose, my choice would taunt me afterward, and might even prove they were right to drop me into my own lowly company in the middle school cauldron of assessment.
It’s a roundelay of attraction and repulsion that leads nowhere … and squanders energy. Yes, it helps to remember that. We are what we eat—a hot dog at the track always leaves me dull, with a nitrate hangover, and not thinking clearly—but we’re also the disbursement of our thoughts, which, overdone, can induce dullness as well. And from this realization—about the need to husband my energy—comes the sword-stroke question that cuts through subjective confusion: Can this Attachment kick hard enough in the final furlong to pass the front-runners and win the race? That’s the point here, after all, since I’m looking to make a few bucks.
I stare at the mass of notations I’ve made on the newsprint page. The answer is as obvious as it ever gets: No.
Well, I think, probably not, and decide to more closely examine the other two before reconsidering this one I am all but certain will not win.
The pace-setting horses are a toss-up, so far as I can see. One likes to lead the field, the other to stalk the leader, and there’s nothing significant to separate them … until, looking up at the animals that have been led onto the oval by their jockeys, I see the stalker prance on its toes, head high, ears perked … and looking directly at me, which triggers a primitive connection. With the harmonic fluidity of elements I like to think are parts of a whole, his name jumps off the page when I glance down: Imtheone.
Undoubtedly. With sudden, absolute assurance, I cross off the other front-runner, Candoo; no, not today you can’t. I have my horse.
(Note, however, that I have not yet boldly slashed the come-from-behind Attachment from the page with similar certainty.)
Out of habit, I continue to handicap for a while, calculating, making notes, factoring in the imponderables of track condition and jockey; double-checking. And meanwhile another factor enters, which shouldn’t matter now that I have my choice, but in fact does: Time. There is always too much or too little of it.
I first came upon this inexorable reality after the initial charm of the track dissipated, in concurrence with my losses. It was a period during which I could find nothing attractive about the place, and wondered how I ever had. Between the high rollers who arrived at the clubhouse entrance in limousines, and the more obviously depraved losers who rooted about the littered infield after the last race, looking for redeemable tickets; between such equally meaningless extremes and the dungeon innards of the grandstand, where feverish last minute calculation and unwarranted hopefulness fermented before each race—it seemed something spiritual had to be at play. For God was supposed to be everywhere, even a place as awful as this.
I realized then, as I pondered the figures in the Racing Form, the track condition, jockeys, trainers, odds, and all the rest, that it was impossible to gather every last, conclusive bit of information before making a choice. There wasn’t enough time. A corollary presented itself, a back door to the spirituality I was seeking: to grasp the essentials in time to act, all distraction in the twenty or so minutes between each race had to be eliminated, or at least ignored. One had to suspend time as long as possible, had to be in the moment, every moment; a paradoxical eternity, existing in Time as if timeless, before sidling up to the betting window to cash in, so to speak, on the fruits of this meditation.
And now this invisible colossus was there with me as I stood on line beneath the grandstand, waiting to place my bet. Time. It was silent at the moment, but right there, beside me. Keep it in mind.
A tote board suspended from the high ceiling is visible from every spot in the concrete interior. There are totes, in fact, throughout the track, winking and flirting with the would-be-wise bettor; every bet relayed to a central computer and fed back to the crowd; a state-of-the-art polling operation, never more than two minutes out of sync, reflecting the perfect democracy, making this one 5-2, that one 8-1, as bettors vote with their money. Exact opinion results on every horse; yet one is prone to believe more, because we live in essential uncertainty, and when enough people express an opinion, the average, totemic, all-too-human individual posits a false god of cumulative prediction. That’s why Kierkegaard railed against public opinion, believing we’d all be better off not knowing what everyone thinks they believe. Yet, as one among the all-too-human, I was capable of being influenced by the tote as well, even now, with my carefully chosen fifth-race horse.
There’s too much time, you see. I should have eschewed my habitual double-checking after reaching a conclusion and gone to the betting window right away.
Beneath the grandstand, waiting on line, bills clutched in my hand, I peruse the odds on one of the ubiquitous tote boards … and see that Imtheone is 4-1, a respectable price, and Attachment 7-1, a longer shot—as it should be, I remind myself. Curious (while killing time), I check the Form again, review my scrawled calculations, stare fixedly at the stats for Imtheone in order to recapture that moment of absolute clarity in which I’d made my choice. Of course no bells ring this time. They only ring once; after that you’re on your own.
Time is beginning to undo me. Things are not as clear as they once were.
Someone in the next line over says to someone else:  “The price is kinda high on this one that comes off the pace. He gets a good start, maybe he can do it … “
A detail I’ve long since considered, reconsidered, and rejected. The come-from-behind horse never gets a good start; that’s why he has to come from behind. But now, as the line creeps toward the window, too slowly, I wonder if perhaps this time he might finally get a decent start, and whether I might not have rejected the come-from-behind horse too quickly. Did I underestimate him by overreacting to my innate bias in his favor? The thought had occurred to me earlier …
Again I check the Form, with prissy care (which is not like me at all), as if nothing I concluded before can be trusted. But in truth I’m being less careful now, inhibiting the usual, discursive way I operate in order to examine minutiae with the concentration of a scholar, which I never was, even when I wanted to be. And a bad scholar at that, seeking his preconceptions in the text. And still I can’t find the pilpul in my talmudic analysis to justify switching from my rational choice to my sentimental one.
Close to the window now, I notice through the smoky gloom that Imtheone is down to 3-1, Attachment up to 8-1, a set of figures I can’t shrug off in my time-weakened state. I’m losing it; no question.
To hold back the chaos of Doubt, and the seduction of his cousin, Expectation, my old hippie self falls back on magical thinking; legacy of the dark days when I was consumed by wishfulness. In present circumstances it takes the form of gematria, the kabbalistic numerology of the Middle Ages, which I’ve read a bit about, which inform me that a winning ten-dollar bet on my rational choice, Imtheone, at 3-1, will put me forty bucks ahead, and, with four races left in the day, guarantee that I’ll break even.
On the other hand, a win on Attachment, at 8-1, will put me up ninety bucks and guarantee that I’ll leave the track with at least fifty dollars in my pocket, no matter what happens in the remaining races.
Yet even as the greater payoff entices me, my recent calculations that a bet guaranteeing break-even accord with the proper tao for this midpoint race: that the race upon which my karmic day hinges should have no gain-loss result better than, more perfect than, zero.
This hippie gibberish comforts me somewhat, ameliorates me to a choice I made for a much better reason long ago. With one bettor now between me and the window, I’ve managed to steel myself against the come-from-behind prodigal colt, the novelist who begins writing late in life and breaks through nonetheless, the artist who works as a bank teller and becomes Gauguin. I’ve gotten myself to the point of making the right bet; to pick the actual, present-day winner. Once more I’m sure of it.
And then I’m at the window, staring at a clerk behind scuffed plexiglass. His nose is bulbous and red; no doubt from ruptured, alcoholic capillaries. I know guys like him in the post office—they develop deadline ulcers, drink too much, too often get heart attacks. This clerk’s face is fleshy, gray, stubbled, with tired eyes. The unlit stump of a cigar protrudes from the side of his mouth, the continual demands of the job keeping his hands too busy to relight it.
In an instant every obstacle I’ve encountered up till now was nothing compared to this guy’s sorry, overworked puss. And from far away I hear a hopeful voice intoning the logic of the long shot. It’s the voice of a congregant of the Reverend Broom, who would sweep us clean; of a time-clock worker who hates his job.
It’s my voice, and it’s saying: “Ten to win on Attachment.”