Friday, August 31, 2007

Life is Strange, Chapter 176,341: In which A Single Cream Cheese Eating Irishman Raises Doubts about the Known and Unknown Laws of the Universe

The other day I went to my neighbor’s for a barbecue. Neighbor Dan had recently been accepted into the unfortunate school of knee injuries (where I have a masters), having blown out his ACL while playing soccer.

“I’m feeling kind of moody and I hate it,” he said when I got there, and I could totally understand. I was feeling moody too. My dog had broken my head not too long ago and had not, I felt, expressed enough contrition. At times I'd been acting downright strange.

AJ was in Newark, picking up a friend from France. It was warm and Dan and I sat in the backyard. The yard sloped down to a dry streambed and the grass was overgrown with weeds and clover save for where there was a slip and slide and, while Dan’s father cooked sausages on a grill, his father-in-law, Mark, debated whether he should head home and get his mower.

“Don’t,” said Dan. Mowing the lawn was his job.

Mark didn’t need much convincing and he sat back and lit organic cigarettes one off of the next and told terrible jokes until we were dizzy from rolling our eyes.

“How’s the pain?” I asked Dan.
“I can’t talk about pain with him here,” he said pointing at his father-in-law.

Mark recognized his cue and explained why. Five years ago he'd had a heart replacement. His old ticker, born with some congenital weakness in the old country, and then further battered by lyme disease, had wore out. He was on the transplant list for a year or so and at one am on a February night, got the call. A heart was ready, was being helicoptered up from Queens. By two am, Mark said, he was under anesthesia.

The operation was a fabulous success. Six weeks later he was back at work, driving his livery car. Five years later, he feels healthy as all get out, energy is great, and mind is absolutely clear…except for a couple things. Strange things.

First: he now dreams almost every night of Florida. Which is odd, because Mark’s never been to Florida. And every night it’s the same dream, the same place, the same hour of evening: they're packing up a house for the season, and then they’re gone.

Second: the cream cheese. Mark had barely eaten the stuff in his life, but since the operation he’s had a craving for it. In those first few months he was eating gallons of the stuff – and always, he said, with a cinnamon raisin bagel.

"I would eat it straight from the container, non-stop," he said. "And then the pickles..."
No way, I said.
“It’s all true,” seconded Dan, seeing my disbelief.

Turns out Mark’s new heart had come from a 37 year old Jewish man in Queens, dead in a car accident. Trying to get to the bottom of these new aspects of his being, he wrote a long letter to the donor’s family, in which he thanked them for his new life, his new heart, even mentioned his strange new food tastes, but they never replied. They didn’t want to know him. It’s like that sometimes.

“One time,” said Mark, “I was on driving to Church on a Sunday morning and I passed a synagogue and just had to pull inside.”
“Did you go in?” I asked.
“No. I sat in the parking lot, holding the steering wheel. It just felt right. It was like the car drove itself into that parking lot."

Later, I would come home and ask my friend Mr. Google what he thought. After some fussing, he gave up a report of a study of implantees who’d experienced deep personality changes from their new organs. An Archie Bunker-like auto factory worker who received the heart of a black teenager and began to hang out with his African-American co-workers. A thirty-ish woman who went from gay to straight. A five year old boy who, never having met them, picked out the parents of his organ donor in a crowd, climbed on their laps and said: Timmy told me to tell you he’s ok.

Mark's story has stuck in my mind. We voyage from morning to night with the assumption that reality is limited to what is measurable. Weight, volume, energy, height. In Europe they’re building a 17 mile oval underground so they can collide particles at light-speed; then they will comb the wreckage of the collusion for the atomic keyhole particle that will explain the existence of our universe. Because where, darn it, did it all come from? Who birthed the bang? I wish them all the luck in the world, this international team of underground particle colliders, but they will fail, I think, because how can any light-speed collusion explain a single cream cheese-eating Irishman? It can't.

Which leads to questions, so many questions, the beautiful kind: Such as: What if it is our seeking that separates us from the sought? Why can’t the final answer allow for mystery? What if we are using the wrong mind?

Back to the yard: Dan’s father brought out a beer for his son. A cocksure calico kitten, realizing Otis was securely leashed, lay down exactly six inches out of his reach. Mark told another dirty joke about Ronald Reagan, and then one about a hunchback in a graveyard. He lifted up his shirt and his scar was like the laces of a football.

”Cream cheese,” he said, taking a long drag off his cigarette. “I could never stand the stuff before. It’s something you’ve got to grow up eating. Sausage, potatoes, that’s what I know.”


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