Well, not really. But I was the co-writer on this episode of the Aussie sitcom "Hey, Dad!" in which she appeared and I recall that she was very professional, had great timing and, yes, she had a certain something...
I’d been down into these tunnels before, under the city, for reasons of my own. I thought I knew my way around, but I had never been this deep before. The air was becoming fetid, and my torch was dimming. I was beginning to think I’d been tricked, when I saw a faint glow ahead.
A man in dirty overalls sat at a battered oak desk, reading a skanky copy of ‘Hustler’ by the light of a crystal candelabrum. He looked at me, rolling a stogie from one side of his mouth to the other.
“Got a ticket?”
I handed him the small laminated card. He looked at it, scratched his stubbled jaw and nodded.
“Where’d you get this?”
“I bought it on eBay. It was listed as a joke. You know, 'Ticket To See God – Good for one visit'. Couldn’t resist. I, ah, just followed the directions.”
“Fuck me, no respect at all. Not like the old days…” He took out a set of clippers and punched the ticket.
“Um, are you… God?”
“Do I fucking look like a Deity?” he snapped. “Straight ahead, you’ll know when you get there. And don’t touch anything!”
I walked in near-darkness for another half hour or so, when I emerged without warning into a lush, well-tended garden. It was peaceful, serene, filled with the sound of birdsong and the smell of horseshit. A large, pale blue unicorn grazed by a pond, near a long oak bench. Occasionally it scratched its rump with its horn. I approached, thinking perhaps it was God, but it ignored me. Everything glowed as if lit by the midday sun, yet there were no shadows cast and the sky was black and starless.
“Nice, isn’t it?” asked a slightly croaky voice behind me. I turned, to see a large orang-utan sitting on the bench, eating a Chupa-Chup.
I looked around. I couldn’t see anyone else.
The ape waved at me. “Here, dumbass, on the bench! Welcome to Eden.”
I walked over to him.
“Are you… are you God?”
He stood up, bent one leg and spread his arms.
He looked like Al Jolson in a fur coat.
“No offense, but you’re an ape.”
He sat again, licking his Chupa-Chup cheekily.
“None taken. Remember, I created you guys in my own image. And I don’t really like that name, a bit generic. Call me Frank, if you like. Buddha does. So, anyway, what do think of the Garden?”
“It’s not very big.”
“It was only built for two people.”
“Who? Adam and Eve?”
He nodded. “Had to start somewhere…”
“Are you saying Adam and Eve were real? I thought all that Old Testament stuff was, you know, metaphorical?”
He rolled his eyes back in his head – right back, so that for a second they were peeking out of his ears.
“Allegorical, actually. You humans, you’re so gullible. You’ll believe anything. A Universe in seven days, rain floods the whole planet… hey, like the unicorn? I got that idea from the Simpsons.”
“He’s nice, looks really placid. You ride him?”
“I tried, but he gave me a rash. Think I’m allergic or something. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. Adam and Eve were a couple of protozoa – you know, alphabet noodles in the ol’ primordial soup. Bit o’ hydrogen, bit o’ carbon, couple of lightning bolts and Whammo! Evolution. What a doozy! From ooze to Uzis. Protoplasm to plasma screens. I just fired up the old cellular mitosis thingy, and away it went. Pretty clever, doncha think? ” He was jumping around on the bench, acting out Creation as if it was a dance craze.
“But God… I mean Frank, I thought Evolution was against everything you stand for. I thought you created everything. Don’t you mark the sparrow’s fall, and all that stuff?”
“Oh, suuure I do… like I’ve got the time and inclination to sit around making blades of grass, feathers, skin, putting little beasties together one by one. It’s a labour saving device. You’ve got food processors, I’ve got Evolution. I thought it was one of my better creations, personally.”
“The religious right don’t. They’d like to hang Evolutionists. They’re very powerful at the moment.”
“Fucking fundamentalists,” Frank snorted, scratching his anus and grimacing with distaste. “They think they know everything. Think they know me. They’re like those other self-appointed zealots, over in Camel Country. They have no doubt about anything, that’s what makes them so dangerous. Fuckers!”
He smacked his fist into his palm. The Earth shook, just a bit. I thought I’d better change the subject.
“Is there, you know, a meaning of life, a Great Awful Truth?”
“Is there a Great Awful Truth? Well, of course there is! You want to know it? The Great Awful truth is… that there is no Great Awful Truth. Everything just is. Time is a curved continuum, which is impossible, and infinity has an ending.”
“Hubble’s Radius,” I added smugly. Frank looked at me for a long moment.
“That was the Universe, not Infinity. Never mind. Hubble was a smart bastard, no doubt, but his maths was way out. Einstein, now he was onto something, he was one clever dude, just couldn’t see the whole picture. The Universe isn’t expanding, and it isn’t contracting either. It’s more like… well, imagine a slinky boinging around inside a hamster wheel. It’s more like that.”
“You got a better word?”
I didn’t, and I began to realise that for someone with a Ticket To See God – Good for one visit, I was being a bit of a prick.
Frank, being omniscient, read my mind. “Yeah, but don’t worry, all humans are dickheads. Goes with the ‘self-awareness’ thing. Always striving for perfection… Like those arrogant doobs who leave ‘deliberate errors’ in carpets and things, to show that they’re not really capable of perfection, as if they were. Wankers!”
“But, you’re… you know, God. Aren’t you perfect?”
“Do you know anyone who is?”
I shook my head. I didn’t even know anyone who was sane.
“Then how can I be? How can I be perfect if I created imperfection?” He sat back, grinning, and rolled the Chupa-Chup down his tongue.
He had me there. I guess people just had to believe in the idea of perfection, otherwise how could they believe in God? The funny thing was, I had never actually believed in God, or Frank, until a few minutes ago. For all I knew, I might in reality be laying on some sweat sodden dance floor, hallucinating wildly. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Perhaps I would wake up in the Recovery Ward again, and this would all be a fading memory. Frank leaned over and pinched my arm with long, apey fingers.
“Ow! Shit, that hurt, Frank!”
“Pain is the only true sign of life. One of Buddha’s, only he says it better.”
“I thought Buddha was only a man?”
He chuckled. “He thought so too. He was my favourite, you know, out of all the prophets. Didn’t go around starting cults and pointing the finger at others.”
“I thought Jesus was your favourite. Wasn’t he your only son?”
“See, there you go with that parochial doctrinal thing. Can’t seem to get that out of your systems. They were all my sons, all my daughters… all my children.”
He gazed off for a moment, looking at the unicorn. There was a tear in his eye.
“You know, don’t you, that you really are alone? In the whole universe, the whole shebang, there is no other intelligent life. You can go on looking, and good on you for trying, but there ain’t nothing out there but bugs, slime and a few creepy things you don’t want to know about. You’re an accident. Your brain, it wasn’t supposed to happen. My bad, I guess. But even I can’t turn back time. I do love you, you know, but I can’t live your lives for you. I don’t answer prayers, or forgive sins. It doesn’t work like that. I just wish you’d learn to love each other, it’s the only way forward.”
I had to ask him. “John Lennon… was he one of yours?”
He turned to me, shaking his head slowly. “He was… one of yours. Wanna know who ordered the hit?”
He told me. I wasn’t surprised. The music industry was full of people like that. He offered me his Chupa-chup. Was I going to pass up a chance to suck on God’s own lollipop, just because it had ape-spit all over it? I took it and put it in my mouth. Mmm, cola.
He brightened up a bit, gave me a friendly slap on the knee.
“Look, I’m happy to talk cosmic shit with you all night,” he said, “But you must have some burning questions, some mysteries you’d like cleared up. Where do you want to start?”
I thought for a moment. So many questions…
“Well, there is something. What’s the deal with pubic hair?”
He smiled, and tapped the side of his flat, apey nose. Then he slowly pushed his index finger into his left nostril, right up to the second knuckle. He withdrew it and contemplated the outcome.
“Sorry, sport. There are some things which must remain a secret.”
The deadliest weapon on earth is a firmly held belief.
In times of stress or crisis, many people will (usually unconsciously) perform some sort of ritual, often one learned in childhood - from picking their nose to throwing a full-blown tantrum, or something a little more sophisticated - "laughing it off", getting a headache, taking the fifth amendment, or just shifting the blame.
There is probably not a human on earth that does not have a repertoire of small but important rituals - the way you brush your teeth, tie your shoes, comb your yak, load your rifle, oh no, they can't take that away from you. Not even those who experience the apparent freedom of extreme madness can escape the domination of ritual - they are, poor bastards, often enslaved to it even more fully, as they count their freckles, endlessly align their pencils, dance clockwise to unheard music and mumble mindless mantras at the back doors of midnight.
Some seem not to have even this support system - the ones who either stay completely cool or crack up suddenly and spectacularly. No religion, no loyalties other than self, respect of the need for law but not for its substance, or custodians, and a painful self-awareness and consequent avoidance of risk-taking. An inability to make decisions.
Decision making requires a belief system.
Animals in the wild do not require beliefs, since important choices are instinctive, or mass decisions made by or in favour of the collective.
Pets, however, develop belief systems. Owner equals food, affection, shelter. Look into your dog’s eyes, and know how a monarch feels. Lay down with men and you get up with flea collars.
Man developed belief systems when he first needed to make decisions, store knowledge and account for the unaccountable. He also found it a great way to forgive himself for undertaking the disposal of other men and their beliefs. Society needs beliefs to survive. Holy Books are survival manuals, encompassing all the rituals of diet, cleanliness, mating and behaviours needed for the collective to survive. They usually provide a schedule of membership fees as well.
Why do people join the belief collectives? Because the purpose of every collective, church, congregation, club or chapter is to anticipate and survive the Apocalypse.
I sit and stare. This empty screen can be the most daunting thing there is. I mean, it’s not just like turning on a tap, it’s not like going into babble mode and hoping it makes sense. The brain must choose which finger to place on which key, and do it several thousand times, and at some point it all has to make sense.
I sit and stare, and feel alone. I feel like the time they chose up teams, remember that? The first of a lifetime of embarrassing rituals to which we were subjected. Cricket in the park had always been fun, but school team choosing was a process of humiliation and degradation based on oily, shifting peer groups that moved sideways even as the picking took place. When it’s down to just you, the geek with taped-up glasses and the fat kid with shit-stained pants, better get some new friends, or pick a different sport. It’s an old story.
I sit and stare. Like the time that Jenny said “Look, I really want to be your friend, but that’s all… With him, it’s different, you know? Didn’t he tell you? He should have.” Yes, I know. No, he didn’t. Yes, he should have, he was supposed to be my best friend. When it’s just you, sitting in your car with that slapped-face look, watching them walk to his house and shut the door, better get some new friends, or cast your net wider. It’s an old story.
So, I sit and stare at what I’ve written, wondering why those words, why now? What little twists of memory combined with the minute synaptic twitches that formed these actions, pounding plastic keys with these two clumsy fingers, forming hieroglyphs that you will read, or not. When it’s just you, sitting at that keyboard, just remember that, at that moment, all those others out there are your friends. Looking into their own personal stores of hurt, of dreams and triumphs, wins and losses, they try to form and order their own lives into something that makes sense, something that justifies the pain.
At last, you don’t need new friends, just new stories.
Breakfast With A Champion (Farting Around On a Day Like No Other) - A Vonnegut Feeling.
25 September, 08
This isn’t a book review. Even if I knew how to write one (I don’t) I couldn’t because I haven’t finished the book yet.
Normally when I get up in the morning, I turn the computer on, make a cup of tea, let Small Dog out of the kitchen and feed her. Then I sit in front of the screen, reading, conversing and doing a crossword. Then, Big Dog is let out of the laundry, we have breakfast together (he’s blind, but he likes to sit and sniff loudly and suggestively in the direction of my plate as I eat) and then whatever needs to be done gets done, or gets put off until later.
I have the radio on most of the time. Classical music mostly and, now, a new show which combines music with readings from all fields of literature. On the first day, they played a music and dialogue track from the Zefferelli film of Romeo and Juliet, which nearly had me in tears. The other day I sat and listened in awe as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was read, as quietly and humbly as I imagine it was written. Again, the passage about the consecration of the battlefield had me shaking my head at the ability of mere words (hah!) to move us so very deeply. These are days like any other.
Some days are, of course, not so. Some days are unique. Sometimes it’s something big. A death, a funeral, a birth. Or lunch with an old friend. Sometimes it’s something small. This morning I had to have a blood sample taken for my new doctor. A novel experience as I don’t visit doctors very often. I last had a medical when the Olympic Games came to Sydney and I worked briefly as a driver for NBC TV. So, as fasting was a requirement for the test, I decided I’d go down to the “village” and have breakfast there after I’d been to the pathology centre.
I’ve never given a blood sample before, other than the minor finger-prick type. Having a needle inserted in the elbow and watching three test tubes fill up in a few seconds was a new experience. We bleed fast and, as the nurse agreed, we nearly always crave a coffee afterwards, especially at eight in the morning.
So, blood drawn, I hoofed it around to this little Chinese bonsai nursery and café which I walk past often, went to only once but still remembered liking. They have fountains, lots of greenery and the owner chalks up pithy sayings of Confucius which change daily. I ordered an omelet and coffee and rang my wife (who gets up at four every morning to go to work) to tell her where I was. I’m still not mad about my new mobile phone, I don’t like them much anyway, but it has its uses and makes a great standby camera.
Then – and I think this was the real reason for going there - I pulled out my brand-new, bargain-bin copy of A Man Without A Country and began to read while I waited for my omelet, which was delicious but arrived way too soon. If I hadn’t been so hungry by then I may have let it get cold rather than put my book aside.
I’ve always liked Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. He has a plain-spoken, deceptively folksy style and simple, unadorned truth seems to shine out from his words. Not great, blazing Truth, blinding with Sun-like intensity and screaming out to be printed in quotes on the dust jacket – his truths are more like the distant stars, small points of light in the darkness that we can navigate by if we recognise them. His truths aren’t revelations that leap out and confront you and make you question your worldview. His truths tap you on the shoulder and say “Hey, remember me? Back when you were young and thought your ideals were cast in steel, you used to feel like this.”
(An aside: What I like most about co-incidence is that it never fails to give that frisson of synchronicity, that hint that some instrument of fate might be trying to show us something greater at work than a mere concurrence of events. Not far into the book I found myself reading a short essay about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and, sure enough, there as an illustration of its greatness, and an exemplar of purely fine writing, was the same passage on the consecration of the battlefield.)
Though this is a book that may be read easily, it is not a book to be taken lightly. It is a book about the meaning of life, the end of the world and the point of no return. For the record, the first is “just farting around”, the second is closer than we think and the third is long past. It isn’t a biography, or even a series of essays, scholarly or otherwise. It isn’t easy to describe. Here is no more or less than a direct and privileged look into the mind of arguably one of the greatest humanists of our time. He may not have been one of a kind (though many would say he was) but he was quite possibly the last of his kind.
This book reminds me of good Japanese food. It looks light and insubstantial but, if properly prepared by a master, it is as filling as steak and dumplings. I put it down after a while, though I could have read all day. Probably not, though – it is a thin book, sparsely typeset and punctuated by resonant, full-page chapter headings. I imagine it could be read in two hours if the reader was lucky enough not to be interrupted. But this is not that kind of book. Like a good bottle of whisky, part of the joy is sipping it slowly and savoring the effect rather than throwing away the cork and bolting the lot. There will be no more once this is finished. It was his last book and possibly his best.
You don’t have to read this book. But you should.
PS. I finished the book a day or so later. Took me an hour. In it Vonnegut more-or-less predicts the current economic crash and the whole bail-out notion, which seems to be rewarding the guilty and punishing the helpless and blameless, with his usual acerbic accuracy. I finished it in one gulp, as it were.
At least I don’t do that with whisky anymore (thankfully - I’d be long dead otherwise!)