Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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The Pre-Birth Menu

Choose your parents. Choose to be born during a specific period of history. Choose your gender. Choose your race, ethnicity, language and social class. Choose your level of intellect, your various talents, the size and shape of your body, the color of your eyes, the strength in your arms and legs. Choose your level of health. Choose your personality, character and unequalled tenacity.

Then choose the conflicts and accidents to befall you. Be aware: the pre-birth menu does not offer the choice of “no accident”. You must choose something. Nazis or Soviets should bust down your door, a tsunami must wreck your village, a pipeline should explode near your place of work, a father should beat you, a Sandusky molest you, a priest have his way with you, or a stray bullet must pierce your (very much beloved) infant brother’s skull. If you’re to avoid violence or natural disaster, you must at least choose to face some injury or illness, either a physical defect or mental trait that renders you stubborn, foolish or relentlessly sad. Perhaps you’ll be obese, depressed or suffer from acid reflux. There’s just no way out of this. We’ve yet to see anyone, even members of the über-class, spend a life without conflict. Jesus was tortured to death. The Buddha found suffering everywhere. Socrates drank hemlock. Bill Gates is a nerd. Warren Buffett feels guilty about his secretary’s taxes.

Now, conflicts and disasters aside, build your business (or maintain your occupation) yourself. Mine your own ore. Smelt your own metal. Forge every single tool, nail, screw and bolt, every girder and corrugated sheet. Farm your own trees; cut and transport your own lumber. In the process, make your own energy; dig your own wells. Fix every last thing yourself. Raise and educate your children without any teachers, schools, scientists or coaches. Heal every ailment; treat every sore without a single doctor or nurse. Also, make your own weapons (also without scientists) to defeat or neutralize your enemies without any help from conscripts, volunteers or manic patriots. In the process, grow, raise, harvest and cook your own food. While eating, think things through carefully, tenaciously: have you prepared yourself for every possible calamity, including your certain death?

In short, have you dug your own grave? And can you be sure to remain standing near its foot at the hour of your death? Because if you happen to drop dead in some other place, you cannot expect anyone to drag your cadaver across the empire of your ego. They’ll all be too busy fending for themselves to notice that you’re gone.


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Questions for Pope Benedict XVI

Dear Pope Benedict:

It seems that God has changed His opinion on the use of rubbers. Therefore you, His right-hand man on Earth, have now changed the church’s position on prophylactics, or so I read in the Telegraph. I must admit, having read God’s new position carefully, that I am quite confused by this, His latest mystery.

Condom usage “could” be “responsible” when used to halt the spread of disease, but remains immoral when used to prevent life. I am not sure about the meaning of the words “could” or “responsible” in this case. Are we to assume that there is sometimes a case when it is irresponsible to avoid spreading illness? Or do you mean that those sexually active men who know that they are infected with an STD, AIDS for example, should now, according to God’s will, use a condom when having sex? What if the infected person is a woman? Should we ask her, “Are you infected, or do you think you might be infected?” Some clarity on this position, Your Excellency, would aid me in my investigation of God’s ever-increasing mystery.

Of course, as happens with all theological positions and edicts from God, the human mind immediately considers particular situations. (Even one of God’s greatest servants, Abraham in Genesis 18, demanded clarity from God when He stated He would smite Sodom and Gomorrah, history’s first recorded gay tea party.) I am struck now by my situation. Having earned decent grades from diligent study at two of the Lord’s most holy Catholic schools, I learned that I should not have sex with anyone but my wife. It should only be in the missionary position, and then only when we intend to procreate. We cannot procreate during Advent (four weeks), Lent (forty days), on any Holy Day of Obligation (six more days) or during the Sabbath (53 of them this year). In His love for His children, God has left us about 244 days of the year, give or take a Sunday, when we might procreate; of course, we must, for practical reasons, subtract the 20 or so days when my wife has a headache and the 30 or so days when I am either drunk, ill, bloated, exhausted from work or unfortunately limp. So great is God’s love for his children that He has left us about one third of the year to procreate in the missionary position, preferably in a dark room, woe to us if we imagine the neighbor’s spouse (or, so horrible is our lust, members of the Australian Men’s Swimming Team) in the middle of the act.

However, given God’s new opinion, the following theological questions arise: If I have reason to suspect, for example, that my wife might have contracted an STD from a Ukrainian toilet seat–I have in mind the kind available in the задница train station near the Polish border–must I wait until she is diagnosed, or could I potentially have sex with her prior to the doctor’s visit, condom on as a precaution, provided it occurs during one of the legally sanctioned 194 days? Yes, I understand that this would not be sex for the purpose of creating life; however, I *would not* be using the condom to prevent life! Would this situation fall into the category of those when I “could” be acting in a “responsible” way? Which sin separates me further from God? Is it worse for me to be having sex with my wife doggy style on a Wednesday afternoon in November without a condom, or with a condom in missionary position starting on Mardi Gras, the climax accidentally occurring several minutes past midnight, technically already Ash Wednesday?

Please help!

Confused about our Lord’s most Holy Laws, I remain nevertheless His humble student,

Gint Aras


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Discussing bigotry

In 1996 I worked in Linz, Austria as an English teaching assistant. The main job was at the BORG (Bundes-Oberstufenrealgymnasium), a high school for advanced, mostly college-bound students. On one of my first days at work–I was twenty-three years old and without any idea of what to expect–a certain Herr Professor put me up in front of his English class, about sixteen pupils. He introduced me as the new teaching assistant, then moved to the side and left me up at the board. In a matter-of-fact tone, he belted out instructions, “Our class has been reading about the civil rights era in the United States. I’d like for you to explain to us why America is so racist.”

The experience taught me about problems in any discussion or accusation of bigotry, especially across groups that have very different sensitivities. Is America racist? Well…yes, quite. But the Herr Professor’s question was also bigoted, loaded with idiotic assumptions, including the belief that it’s somehow fair to ask a single representative of a community or group to first speak in its name, then explain something notable about its sociology. The pupils and instructor seemed ready to draw very serious conclusions from my answers, and the class turned into the interrogation of a twenty-three year old, almost a test. Would you marry a black girl? Do you have any friends who are black? Would you work for a black boss? Do you believe black people are as smart as white people? The Herr Professor, much to my shock, did nothing to reposition or edit the self-incriminating questions.

This is exactly the sort of self-incrimination coming from those who have rushed to the defense of Petras Lescinskas, the unfortunate Lithuanian basketball fan found guilty of a racially aggravated offense at the Olympics. Among the defenses is this misguided juxtaposition of hand gestures separated by over 70 years of history. In Facebook discussions, and in the comments under articles covering the arrest, you’ll find all sorts of banter. A faction claims that Lescinskas didn’t mean to be racially offensive and, therefore, wasn’t. He was just a passionate fan, and the British cops perceived him as racist. He should have freedom of speech. The apologists also claim that the hand gesture means all sorts of things.

Well, yes. It does and has, most likely dating back to the dawn of civilization. The raised arm on this man is honoring Shiva, and these elementary school pupils are posing for a stock photo. Lescinskas, however, had something very different in mind from Rowan Atkinson or even the Olympic statue (that predates WWII). Few people see a Lithuanian saluting with the arm and imagine him imitating the  statue, paying tribute to Shiva or asking for Herr Professor’s attention.

Lithuanians have earned a reputation for tribalism, small-mindedness, drink and boisterous non-sense, especially at sporting events, concerts and festivals. The behavior of Lescinskas and his entourage, bigotry and all, makes far more news than Lithuanian efforts toward sustainability, for example, which many countries could learn from. But Lithuania could do well to start taking cues from European neighbors like the United Kingdom when it comes to points of view on race and ethnicity.

The bigotry expressed by this basketball fan and his apologists does not exist in a sub-culture. Conversations about race with Lithuanians–even those who have lived abroad for decades, or others who are quite well educated–are often tedious. I’ve met plenty of Lithuanians who look at race and ethnicity as absolutes, not social constructs; they’d think me insane, for example, if I suggested that a Nigerian could become a Lithuanian or vice versa. But ask for a definition of “Lithuanian”. Four nationalists will give you four definitions, each one vehemently dismissing the others. You realize how delusional and isolating it is to believe ethnicity is the sun at the center of an identity system.

Consider the photograph posted below, Lithuanians in blackface. At one point the performance had been available on YouTube but has since been taken down for copyright infringements. It is from a television show called Chorų Karai (Choir Wars), one of these live competitions. The show aired in primetime, the summer of 2006, on national Lithuanian television. It showed Lithuanians in blackface–some dressed as maids, others in odd adaptations of traditional African garb–all of them dancing about while, at the piano, a man in blackface (not pictured) led a version of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack”. I told my friends, all of them college-educated, that this was rather offensive. They told me I was taking it too seriously; I was being American. Americans see racism everywhere. When I pointed out the history of the minstrel show, they all waved it off. These people don’t know anything about that. They’re just trying to have a good time with a song. They’re not trying to insult anyone. It’s a performance. They’re just acting like blacks.

Second City’s ETC, the training ground for the comic troupe, has a rule about writing comedy and satire. You’re not allowed to make fun of or represent a group unless you are a member of that group. I don’t necessarily agree with it but understand the reason for it. It helps to keep the proper sensitivities and perspectives in place. 


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An open letter to the LKF

Dear Lithuanian Basketball Federation (Lietuvos Krepšinio Federacija):

During your past few Olympic basketball matches, a handful of Lithuanian fans disturbed the games by mimicking apes and making obscene racist gestures. This is, by any standard, outrageous behavior that stands in direct contrast to the spirit of the Olympics. While the majority of your fans behaved themselves and supported their team respectfully, they did not make the news. The minority of racists did, of course, as their behavior is extreme and, sadly, contributes further to Lithuania’s well-deserved reputation of intolerance and bigotry.

You cannot ignore this. These are your fans. They have come to support your team; by default, just like you, they are representatives of an entire country. Any team, no matter how popular or obscure, contributes to its culture of fandom through its own behavior, politics and official stances. If you ignore these fans, or if you pooh-pooh their behavior as the minor actions of a foolish handful, you indirectly enable it. It is not enough that arrests were made by English authorities or that an English judge threw the book at a fan. You must also act on your own accord.

Someone from among your brass, either President Arvydas Sabonis or Garbės Prezidentas (koks tinkamas pavadinimas!) Vladas Garastas–or, at minimum, some PR desk jockey–needs to step forward to condemn this behavior. You do not need to make an eloquent or even very lengthy statement. Something like this would suffice:

To our basketball fans, the citizens of London and the world:

It is with deep regret that we, the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, faced the news that a handful of our fans tarnished the Olympic games through racist behavior. This is deplorable and embarrassing. We have not come to the games in this spirit.

We denounce the fans who behaved in this manner. They are not representatives of Lithuania or our greater international fan base. Our players respect their opponents, and the team knows what a great privilege it is to play in the Olympic games before a worldwide audience. Lithuanians have a tremendous love of basketball, at home and abroad, and take great pride in their national team. The team takes the court with a spirit of sportsmanship, and we participate in the Olympics as members of a unified global community. Racists and neo-Nazis have no place in our fan base.

Cordially,

LKF 

You might argue that this is absurd. Should Christopher Nolan make a statement in the wake of the mass murderer who claimed to be inspired by The Dark Knight Rises? He should not have had do. However, he did.


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Gunpoint

This is a blog post I composed in July of 2010 only ten days after being in an armed robbery. It is the only entry I’ll resurrect from the old version of Liquid Ink, and I’ve edited it only slightly. While writing it, I had no way of knowing that the event would trigger a psychological deluge of emotions, memories and ideas that would eventually lead to PTSD.

I’m including it because, as I’ll be writing about PTSD often, I’ll require making reference to this robbery. It’s also a marker of sorts. Having read it myself for the first time in over two years, I’m stunned by how much a person can change in a very short time:
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I was held up at gunpoint earlier this month (7/2010) while buying cat food at a local convenience store. The store is only a few doors from my home in Oak Park, IL, a “yuppy-hippy” village of mansions and boutiques (or, in my case, affordable condos in close proximity to public transport). This typical shop offers specials for police, and there’s usually a Chicago or Oak Park squad car parked out front. Sometimes the store seems a regular tea party for cops, as five or more will be standing around and chatting with the cashiers or managers.

However, there were no cops in the shop now. I was swiping my ATM card when the thugs came in, three of them, one with a bizarre bandage meant to disguise half his head. The ring leader wore a brown and white baseball cap, and the lookout was dressed in a brown or maroon hoodie. Bandage boy put one hand on my shoulder and stuck something hard and blunt into my kidney, probably his knuckle. He whispered “Don’t move.” My first instinct, an impulse that surprised me, was to see if the tools had guns, and I relaxed when I noticed the ring leader holding what looked like a .45 caliber automatic pistol. That hand cannon relieved me of some pressure. Had these punks come in with knives, my civic and moral duty would have been to throw them through the glass. But now I could just let them get on with the robbery.

The bandaged one turned me around and pushed me up against the counter to be sure I wouldn’t move. He kept his hands on me the whole time, sometimes holding his thumb near my temple. As I remember this now, rage surges through me, but I was perfectly calm during the robbery, holding my wallet at my side, letting the guy know I wasn’t going to struggle with him.

I could see the whole event reflected in the store’s front windows. The only other guy in the shop was the cashier.The main thug clocked him in the face with the gun and demanded all the cash drawers opened. Bleeding down his cheek, the cashier did as he was told, and the thug emptied the tills. Then he wanted something else unlocked; I couldn’t see what it was, either a safe or a box beneath the counter. The cashier said, “I can’t open that,” and the thug protested, gyrating and gesticulating in an armed fit.

This was the moment when I realized I might die–the idiot standing behind me might put a bullet in my head just to prove his seriousness. The cashier’s pleas had now approached panic: “I can’t open this. I’m not able to open that!” The various voices of my inner consciousness began their monologues: the Catholic was blaming me for choosing to adopt a cat, as the college professor analyzed 50 years of public policy and socio-economic decline that had led to this crucial point. I was surprised by how easily the artist in me accepted death. My daughter would not only grow up without a father, but she’d get to say he was killed while buying cat food in Oak Park. This filled me with shame and terrible sadness, so intense that I believed the bullet was certain. I was waiting for the blow, the libertine in me curious to know how it would feel. In the meantime, my inner Cicero-boy was screaming, “You idiot! They’re just kids robbing the place. Snap out of it. Keep your eyes open.”

The thug keeping lookout hurried his parters up. They left the store with a few cartons of cigarettes and an insignificant amount of money. A getaway car in a nearby alley drove the gang to the next target: a gas station along one of Chicagoland’s busiest streets.

This heist at my local convenience store, I learned today, was part of a spree that robbed seven businesses, one of them a fortress-like liquor store; a sandwich shop was also hit in broad daylight. All of it was done with a hijacked car the kids crashed while fleeing police; they ditched it and took off on foot, leaving everything on the floor: cash, cigarettes and the gun. I was happy to learn that the pistol was real and loaded: the vision of my death had not been on account of a pellet or squirt gun.

Today I went in to view a police lineup and a series of photographs. I successfully identified two of two arrested thugs. The detectives claimed this was very important, as other witnesses had been unable to recognize anyone. Strangely, the men I saw did look very similar to each other, an odd mix of opaque anger in their eyes and blithe apathy in their body language.

I’m left with a dumb sense of confusion following today’s lineup; it did not provide any sense of closure or a feeling that justice had been served. I won’t get into our nation’s gun debate or try to counter the argument that all of this could have been avoided had I entered the shop with an M-16; and I don’t want to beat myself up (again) over my failure to invest in Lockheed Martin back in 2003. We have armed teenagers running around hijacking cars and holding up gas stations. We’ve gotten used to it. We feel it’s normal, even inevitable, and we’ve found all sorts of ways to separate ourselves from these events. What do you expect, people ask, from kids who don’t have responsible parents or teachers? It’s a good question, one that begs so many others.