Liquid Ink

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


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The story of my vasectomy

WARNING! This link will take you to a video of an actual vasectomy. While I highly encourage people to watch it—all surgery is fascinating, and this is the kind of “no scalpel” procedure I had done—I should state that it presents a tug of war between stainless steel instruments and very thin and sensitive body parts.

I was never this nervous going into a medical procedure. I’ve had four wisdom teeth beaten out of my skull. I’ve had my wrist screwed together. I had to get plantars warts burned off of my sole with a laser. Nothing quite compares to lying on your back mostly naked with your shaved scrotum (I did it myself) the focal point of the afternoon.

Weeks before the surgery, my doctor had explained the procedure in pretty vivid detail. Of course, my writer’s imagination had gone wild, and it did not help to see, so soon as I had entered the room, a stainless steel tray holding almost a dozen surgical instruments, and also gauze smeared with iodine, the color of brown scabs. I knew it was iodine. But iodine recalls the color of coagulated blood.

There I lay, nards under a tissue-thin square of sky blue paper, and the doctor came in with a host of people: four (at least) medical students, all of them preparing for lucrative careers of nard hacking. In the small room, I soon developed a sense of claustrophobia, this while my testicles swelled to the size of peaches. Supine, I stiffened to a board, sweat beating my brow, the room a trash compactor, my nards now ripened Michigan fruits, their skin red and downy. And I had a multicultural audience wearing scrubs.

I was wearing my dashiki. The doctor said, “Hey, this shirt looks Caribbean. Let’s put on some Caribbean music.” Songs by Mark Anthony and the loathsome Ricky Martin streamed from a corner. The procedure had begun before Ricky could sing Go go go! Ole ole ole!

“You’re just going to feel a pinch.”

Indeed, a pinch, if that’s what you want to call a needle stabbing your sack. I tried to be mindful, as my Roshi had trained me, but my mind went rather haywire, and I started hearing all sorts of idiotic associations, including the jingle, “You save big money when you shop Menards.” It did not go well with Ricky Martin, not when Raymond Jack Szmanda (the Menards guy) danced before me, his nuts bleeding.

The doctor was training his students, explaining all sorts of things about skin and vessels and placement and tools, and using words like cauterize, and a nurse kept handing him some branding rod attached to five million watts of electric death. I could smell my testes burning.

It hurt to be yanked around. Not the way it hurts when you stab yourself with a screwdriver. But the vas is short and rather thick, thicker than you imagine; the sound and vibration of cutting it was similar to what I felt when I cut my kids’ umbilical cords. There’s also very little room to maneuver, and with so much attention on me, I felt I was in a toaster.

I was pouring sweat. The doctor opened the door to let in air. This made a nurse feel she could now come in to ask random questions. “Just one quick question, doctor.” Are those Michigan peaches? Could someone cauterize Raymond Jack before he bleeds all over the floor?

The stitching required more yanking, more explanations, “These are going to dissolve.” Dissolve? How? Where? Into what? “We won’t need to remove any sutures.” You’re damn right about that. “Oh, good. Rihanna is on.”

Now that I was all stitched up, nauseated, a dripping human sponge of sweat, the doctor asked me, his hand on my shoulder, “What kind of music do you like?”

“Me?” I gasped. I found the breath to say, “Tom Waits.”

The doctor and the audience exchanged clueless glances.

“Should we know him?” he asked.

I nodded. “If you die today, what deity you believe in will meet you at the gates of paradise. And you’ll be asked, ‘Do you like Tom Waits?’ Answer ‘No’ and you’ll go to hell where five strangers will cut your genitals.”

They all guffawed. “We’ll look him up. We’ll look him up.” The doctor patted my shoulder. “You did great. You’re all done.”

Just pay at the counter. And spread no seed.

Pecan nuts on tree

Pecan nuts on tree

Photo from Wikipedia.


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Why I love the snow

It occurred to me today while walking across my neighborhood to make an appointment. I know why I love snow, and why I feel a particular sense of warmth following massive snowfall. (If you don’t know, a blizzard blew through Chicago over the weekend.)

Snow requires that we all slow down. It forces society to take it easy. There’s something brutal about it, actually: actions we take for granted, like driving or walking, become questions of serious harm. Slow down or face damages. Make too much haste and it’s possible to slide to your doom.

The best way to deal with the foot of snow covering our city—in some places it is as much as 17 inches (over 43 centimeters)—is to be patient with it. Snow does not interpret anger any more than it senses our indifference. You move one shovelful at a time, and you have to keep your feet, find the right leverage. There’s no way around the snow. You can step through it, but you won’t get very far if you make haste.

You’re better off taking public transportation. In fact, people on my entire side of the block can hardly get out of their garages; even if they could, they wouldn’t make it very far down the alley without getting stuck. Is there anywhere we must go? Really? Where? Stay home to read or write.

“I can’t afford this snow,” people say. “I have to be somewhere at 6:00.” “I can’t deal with this snow,” another will whine. “It’s keeping me from doing what I want to do.”

Yeah, but all you want to do is hurry. A good weekend of snow reminds us that our desire for haste is not a need. We actually can get by perfectly well without any haste at all. The step we’re taking is still being taken in the snow, only we step more mindfully, hoping not to slip, caring for ourselves.

DSC02430


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I saw Godzilla

I went to the cinema for the first time since my daughter was born in 2009. I usually can’t justify it, not with writing deadlines and grading due and children to care for. But yesterday I was met with some writers block, and I chose to go see a film.

What intrigued me about Godzilla was essentially one scene in a 30 second trailer; it shows Godzilla screaming down into the camera while juxtaposed to Chinese lanterns. The scream and dark mise-en-scene really affecting my feelings, and I felt the film might actually be frightening. I think monster movies, while accessing our deepest fears, are usually really stupid, but I also think their stupidity is important. There’s only so much you can do with the plot of a monster movie. Then again, there’s only so much we can do with our monsters.

I did not expect a film full of candy for cinephiles. It includes off-hand references to Kurasawa and Kubrick (Gareth Edwards, the director, uses Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, one of my favorite compositions, in a masterful sequence depicting paratroopers jumping from a plane and falling through a gray and orange sky). It’s also full of delightfully ironic and blithe meta-film, screens depicting newscasts of monsters tearing up Vegas while clueless gamblers focus on slot machines. The film takes itself just seriously enough to offer important commentary on our human arrogance before nature and our belief that technology—specifically military technology—can solve all our problems. But it retains the whimsy necessary to make a monster movie. In the end, its entire premise—I won’t get into it, because it’s part of the delight, but the film deals with nuclear technology and uses the history of nuclear testing and atomic warfare as part of its plot—is absurd. To pretend it isn’t would be folly.

I also did not expect the film to present a Zen argument. This is still a Hollywood film, a remake of a Japanese monster movie. The Zen lesson amounts to pop-Zen, perhaps a good step above the kind available in Tron Legacy, but it’s still rooted in lessons that are sincere and wise. Essentially the lesson is that our self-inflation is the problem, larger than the monster we perceive, a creature that is actually benevolent. I felt the lesson provided a refreshing counterpoint to the usual themes of Biblical apocalypse and redemption at the heart of most monster or disaster narratives that come out of Hollywood. It was also fun to be part of a community for whom this film was clearly meant.

In short, I really recommend it. There’s a lot more to it than what monster movies usually bring, and it includes some really poetic cinematography.


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Independence is a myth (part 2, the expanded version)

I’ve written about this topic before, as long-time readers of my blog will know. This week’s True Community article deals with the myth of independence. Any basic look at human interaction makes it clear that we are interdependent, and that our fate and lot is determined not just by the actions of neighbors but by people who’ve long since died. Why does that offend us? Why are we so reluctant to think of ourselves as members of systems instead of islands.

I hope you enjoy tonight’s article.

Here’s another bit on the same topic from 2012, titled The Pre-Birth Menu.

Three Lamps


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Boredom is a choice—new article

In my most recent True Community article, I consider a phenomenon I see over and again at the community college. Students come to classes believing it’s the job of the class or the professor to keep them engaged.

I have, in the wake of this trend, begun lecturing students on the nature of boredom. I’ve actually started teaching mindfulness in class, and this semester I made two of my classes meditate. I don’t know if it will have any effect but it’s been keeping me interested. I may very well become a member of the Contemplative Mind in Society. This is coming from someone who belongs to zero academic organizations.

Hope you’ll read and share my article.

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Photo by zoetnet


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I miss teaching Sophie’s World

The article I composed for tomorrow’s edition of True Community reminded me of the first book I ever used in my sections of English 101. Sophie’s World is one of my favorite books, and not just because it tells the story of western thought. I like it because of the story Jostein Gaarder creates, essentially in response to the dry nature of most philosophy textbooks. It’s a book I recommend highly. This isn’t a book review, not a traditional one, but know that Sophie’s World is one of those books that stands to be ruined for you if you read even the mildest commentary on Amazon or some other place.

I abandoned the book because students found it tedious, way too abstract and, yes, boring. I can’t tell you how shocking I find this. The history of ideas is boring? What do you find interesting?

In the meantime, of course, I’ve developed a Zen practice, and the very concept of dualism is something I would no longer really subscribe to. Perhaps it’s time to bring Sophie’s World back to my classes, and to offer that point of view to the students who’ll end up reading it.

I might just do it.


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The origins of the cold

My daughter has been talking to me about the temperature lately. She’s four years old and doesn’t like the cold. She knows that places like Los Angeles and Odessa, cities she’s visited, are warmer than Chicago. Of course, she has endless questions, including this one: “Can we move to California?”

Perhaps I’m the only parent I know who doesn’t completely (and I mean entirely and thoroughly) delight at her endless battery of “why”. All children are philosophers. It’s not stupid to wonder why there isn’t any grass under the evergreens or why one part of the world virtually never gets snow. She asks me why people begin as children and not the other way around. Why can’t we start as adults and get younger? (In other words, why can’t we be born allowed to do all the stuff she really wants to do?) Yesterday she asked me if we could Skype Charles Mingus. And she consistently asks about my childhood, though not only because she’s curious about me. At the end of a story, she’ll ask questions like this one: “And when you were fishing with your grandfather, where was I?”

Like her, I was insatiably curious as a child, and not merely about the things I saw in my world. My curiosity led to an identity as a bookworm; books, as we know, present ten new curiosities for every one they satisfy. So I had tons of questions, all of them impossible to answer. Many of my questions had to do with origin and the past. I rarely wanted to know how something functions, but I was always interested where it came from.

I was probably seven or eight years old when I asked an adult where the cold came from. I understood that heat came from things that burned. I knew that the sun, a star, was burning, and that gas flames in my childhood home heated the water that circulated through our radiators. But what generated the cold? Was cold just the standard state, the way things actually were when you removed all fire? If this was true, was it “more real” than heat? In other words, was heat artificial?

The adult told me that cold comes from the air. Air is cold. You can feel it if you stand in the wind. So when you have air, you have cold. And if you want air to warm up, you need fire.

Most adults in my childhood answered questions this way. He spoke authoritatively even though I knew he simply didn’t understand my question. By the time I was seven or eight, I had learned not to press on, to explain that this could not possibly be the answer. Air could not be the source of cold because air did not exist at the beginning of the universe. This was in all the books, even the Bible.

I tried to ask another adult, a teacher this time. She told me the cold doesn’t come from anywhere. Cold just is. But I didn’t believe this answer, mostly because I strongly believed a priest who had taught that everything had an origin someplace. If this were true, cold must have been created just as fire was created.

No book I could find in the library or in school helped me with my problem. The question remained unsolved until I learned about absolute zero in high school. My understanding was that the lowest possible temperature in reality actually couldn’t be reached. I interpreted this in a radical way: cold doesn’t exist. Every temperature is a measure of warmth, either some or a lot. While we feel uncomfortable in negative temperatures, it doesn’t mean we’re experiencing cold. What we’re really experiencing is a smaller amount of heat than we would like.

It strikes me now that this is a rather Zen-like way of understanding something. The teacher who had told me that “cold just is” had one way of looking at cold, but the truth was that “cold is just in your head.” Sure, certain temperatures will kill you. But “cold” is a concept, a construct. The origin of cold is the mind.

Cold is, therefore, a kind of poetry, brutal and hard-kicking, harsh on the skin. It retracts gonads and turns exhales into spectres. Seeing this poetry in action is no consolation to the freezing, perhaps, although I propose an experiment. Next time you’re waiting for a bus in an ice storm, see what happens if you think, “What a harsh poem I’m telling myself.” When you see how something functions, you often realize where it comes from.

Elvensky