Essays in Life
Janet Burroway
This is Burroway's autobiography, and it takes the form of sixteen essays, ranging all the way from "Embalming Mom" to "Dad Scattered" --- what to do with his ashes when they can't be found --- to mildly amusing incidentals of modern American life as building a pool and raising as a son a militant who happens to prefer guns (she prefers to march in parades against war).

There are, also, thought-pieces on shaving one's pube, the NEA, looking in mirrors, Sylvia Plath, making gardens, raising a cat, being in college in the 1950s, and sorting through things when the parents have died and you have to cashier all their possessions.

After three or four chapters, Burroway becomes someone you and I would want to have over to chew the fat. She talks about putting in the pool and the people who are actually doing it are the people you would be meeting if you needed a pool or your furniture moved or your car fixed or an addition on the back of the house.

For the project, they need to take down two pine trees:

    A leather-faced man all bone and sinew, with the pouched eyes of an alcoholic but the reflexes of Mugsy Bogues, loops himself up one pine on a leather belt, his chain saw dangling. The pine limbs come down neatly between azalea and rose, azalea and palm, and the head drops on a dime. Chain buzz and pine smell wake the neighborhood...

    The climber pauses between fellings for a cigarette. "I'm shaking," I say. "Is it still exciting for you?"

    "It's a rush," he's pleased to admit. "My daddy said to me, 'You'll never amount to anything, you won't stay in school, you don't care for nothing but beer and girls, you better find something you like to do.' So I did."

And there you have it. She, the inquisitive sort, the reporter, reporting on those who don't parse sentences the way you and I do --- and as she interviews them this stuff comes out and it's a rush.

She tells us about her father, her father the inventor, who designed houses, who collected keys in jars and tape and hinges, a dyslexic (diagnosed at age 70) who wrote words like "closit" and "linnen" and "kkitchen," and when they go through all his stuff, find

    bundles of pencils, charcoal, Eagle, Eberhardt, Castell, bound in rubber bands like firewood faggots. There are boxes of new Pink Pearl erasers, his supply of which he never let dwindle. There are templates in translucent green, translucent amber, silver metal; a series of neon orange triangles, two sets of German drafting tools in their velvet-lined boxes which we remember precisely because they were kept so carefully locked away.

It's a loving picture of a slightly addled father who "liked signs and advertising. He kept an ear out for slogans, jingles. He took an interest in the atom."

    He loved the theatre, radio, the movies, Charles Wesley's hymns, Ken Murray's Blackouts, Ziegfield's Follies, My Friend Irma, My Friend Flicka. He liked to be read to, he liked to hear "pieces," he took us to Hollywood to stand in line for free tickets to Stella Dallas. He wanted stories, skits, elocution, anecdotes, the news, a shaggy dog.

We get to be almost in love with the eccentric old fellow, with the belly that pooches out over his bathing-suit ... and then: Burroway is eleven, just hanging out with him in the master bedroom, her mother gone off to a PTA meeting. She gets sleepy, lays down, and:

    he reached across with his right hand and put it on my nub of a left breast, began to squeeze, a little half-laugh in his throat as he carried on with the story, my skin working in his fist.

"What I remember best is the stinging of my ears, my heart crashing under his hand, part fear, part disbelief. I remember that what I thought came hammering clear and slow,"

    This has never happened before. No father has ever done this. This is the worst thing that has ever happened in the world.

§     §     §

With writing like this, Burroway wins our hearts --- and by the time she gets past the pools and the cats and the writer's worries --- she has us whole, has us entire. In the last few pages, she tells us what it is like to have two sons, one who is like her: "Impulses pacifist to liberal ... all [friends] Democrats and Labour, ironists, believe that sexual orientation is nobody's business, that intolerance is the world's scourge, that corporate power is a global danger, that war is always cruel and almost always pointless -- that guns kill people." And then she turns up with Son #2 who is "a member of the Young Republicans, the National Rifle Association, and the United States Army Reserve..."

She says, "I love this young man deeply, and deeply admire about three-quarters of his qualities" but admits, "there are those parts of every life that you can't fix, can't escape, and can't reconcile yourself..."

    Most parents must sooner or later, more or less explicitly, face this paradox: If I had an identikit to construct a child, is this the child I'd make? No, no way. Would I trade this child for that one? No, no way.

Borroway is an artful writer. We recommend this collection. Our only caveat is that one should not be put off by the first story --- the one about Sylvia Plath. Unlike the rest of the book, it turns out to be somewhat precious. "I Didn't Know Sylvia Plath" its called --- even though she did.

--- Lynn McWhirter


A Skeptic's Paths
To a Richer Life

David Cortesi
(Trafford, 2340 Tasso,
Palo Alto CA 94301)
David Cortesi does not "find any religion satisfactory." He has set out to construct a belief system --- and a book --- that works for "skeptics" like himself. His key question is: can we evoke happiness without evoking God?

In his eleven chapters, Cortesi tells us what he believes religious practice can give, then suggests secular alternatives --- the importance of human contacts and ritual, some offerings of literature on the mystical experience, reports of research on what makes people happy, and thoughts on how to deal with death.

Any respectable book critic sees books and volumes and arm-loads of self-help, self-realization, self-improvement, self-practice, self-organization literature ... all the "self" stuff that flows from a virulently selfish society. But Cortesi does something different than most of the let-me-show-you-the-way producers.

First off, he has done his homework. When he quotes Thomas Carlyle, Kant, the Dalai Lama, or Samyutta Nikaya, he isn't just throwing around names for showoff: the words make sense, have to do with his message. Then, as important, his writing style is appropriate to the task. This is his description of meditation as a Theravada Buddhist, as good a summary as one can make of an experience that does not lend itself to intelligibility. It involves, he tells us,

    persistent, cool examination of each thought and emotion that floats into the mind. The student labels each mental event, "thinking," "hearing," "itching," or whatever, and observes it: especially observes how the event arises and fades away. Gradually the student achieves an internal margin on which to stand and observe thoughts as they come and go. Gradually it sinks in: every thought and sensation is ephemeral; nothing in the mind is permanent, and not one is even fractionally as compelling or significant as it presents itself.

§     §     §

What is striking about Cortesi is that he defines himself as a "skeptic," but he uses, and uses in abundance, religious texts, reasoning, and doctrine to point the way to inner peace. Thus, not only do Thoreau , Paine, Abraham Maslow, Tim Leary and William James turn up, but there are also copious quotes from Christian, Buddhist, Catholic, and Muslim holy books and writers.

Perhaps his most interesting chapter treats with ecstasy. After showing how others define "bliss" ("Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me..." "The brush in my hand, my dustpan, the stairs, seemed to come alive with love...") he tells us that, in face-to-face surveys, 62% of Americans report having had such an experience. Those who do so are more than likely to be middle or upper class, are well-educated, and are more likely to have a "sense of well-being" (before and after the experience) --- and, most surprising of all,

    25 percent of unchurched Americans reported having had a religious experience, and a similar number of "agnostic," "atheist," and "don't know" groups claim to have had "an awareness of presence or power."

§     §     §

There is enough information here that is worthwhile for those of us interested in not only "a richer life" --- but surviving in a lunatic world, one that glories in the abysmal differences between those who have and those who don't, one that turns to consumerism --- the purchase of a Ford Explorer, say --- as not only a religious but a patriotic duty, and most of all, one that commodifies violence: where teen-agers cannot buy cigarettes or beer but soon enough in all likelihood will be able to buy AK-47s in vending machines.

Cortesi gives us some interesting facts:

  • There is something called "The Blue Letter Bible" on the web where you can view the Hebrew text of a verse, and "view a word-by-word translation from Strong's Concordance" so you will know when some religious nut is putting you on with a conscious mistranslation;

  • Want to know "what it's like, phenomenologically, to be dead?" "You are alive only where your viewpoint is," Tim Leary says. Proof: "Let's presume for the sake of argument that you're not in Algiers. Fine, then you are, right now, dead in Algiers. You experience no input or output from there, you affect nothing. People and things there are unaware of you. You don't exist there... You are dead most places in the universe at this moment;"

  • Exodus 20:22 - 21:21 has specific instructions on how you should treat your slaves: "When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished, for the slave is his money." (The author comments dryly, "Don't trust me; read the original to verify that these are instructions said to have been given by God, from the cloud atop Sinai, to Moses, as Law;")

  • In a section devoted to ritual objects, he says, "We all have a trace of the shaman in our hearts, especially in the instinctive belief in the second law of sympathetic magic" --- that is, that things that have once been in contact "retain some occult connection one with the other." To prove this, he says that we should take a photograph of someone we love very much, make a Xerox copy, and then "defile that copy: scribble on it, smear it, tear it up, grind your heel on it. Go on," he says, "I dare you."

At times, the writing verges on "Helpful Hints for Those Seeking the Path of Contentment." But, mostly, Cortesi makes a strong case for a wisdom of the sensible. After all, who else has pointed out to you the ultimate futility of worrying about how they'll think of you on down the line:

    Do you suppose your great-grandfather would be flattered if he could know how you think of him? Your great-grandchild's concept of you will be just as detailed and just as fair as that.

Finally, he points out that in 100 or so years, all 6,000,000,000 people living on the earth right this moment will be sleeping ever so soundly in the ground.

--- Francisco Tocino

Of Ashes

Justin Chin
Justin Chin was born in Singapore of a Chinese family who valued, he tells us, his becoming "Doctor... Lawyer. Engineer. More liberal families would probably accept Accountant, and possibly an MBA from an American Ivy League university." As a child, he only cared for drawing and reading. The family hoped by beating him and putting him under the thumb of a devilishly harsh aunt he would be cured of his artistic bent.

It didn't work --- in fact, not only did he end up as a poet, playwright and performance artist in this country, he found, at age thirteen, that rather than hanging out in study hall or playing soccer like his brother, he preferred public bathrooms:

    I was ecstatic and fearful, but I wanted more. One day, at a local shopping mall, as I was trying to sneak a peek at penises in the restrooms, a man at the urinal actually turned to me and started playing with himself. He flashed a gold-toothed smirk at me and motioned for me to come over. I was shocked and I zippered up and ran out, but the seeds had been laid. The whole world of restroom sex had opened itself up to me.

Chin lives in San Francisco where he writes and gives readings and (apparently) falls in love every few weeks with someone new.

Burden of Ashes is divided into twenty parts. Some of the essays are disjointed and meaningless, others are heavy with regret. Tales of his family are tarnished with bitterness, and journeys with them (one recently to mainland China) tend to go on and on.

Chin is at his best drawing villains, telling of passionate loves, and reports on casual sex. His chapters on the evil aunt have the power that flows from innocent child in the paradoxical position of being dominated by one who prefers to torture rather than to nourish:

    Jamesy scared the multiplication table into me in Primary Two, months before it was even taught in school. She made me recite the times-tables from two all the way up to 12, while the bamboo cane hovered over me, ready to rain stinging blows on my arms, legs, back, and buttocks if I should falter or hesitate. I learned spelling and vocabulary, synonyms and antonyms, similes and grammar with the threat of being caned. She told everyone that I was the lazy one and I had to be pushed, watched every step of the way.

It was the same with cleaning the driveway and yard, learning the violin, and eating. In one particularly disgusting passage about being forced to eat carrots... Oh hell, it's so gross I'm not going to repeat it for you here. I have my limits, you know, and I don't get paid a pfennig for these reviews.

Chin's ability to recite the horrible is matched by his ability to recite love. He falls for one called "Horehound," telling us that the word denotes a plant that the Greeks thought would cure rabies:

    They soon discovered that the mulched herb did nothing to stop the rabies from invading the unfortunate body, but not before a sizable number of people foamed at the mouth and died from the bite of humankind's best friend. Do we learn from history? Here I am, begging Horehound to bite me on my chest as if he were a mad dog and I a teasing child. Wound me, salve me, my sweet Horehound.

Of course, Horehound leaves; of course, Chin grieves. But the telling of their time together is elegant --- and lovingly written.

Burden of Ashes is somewhat scattered. We get complete reprises of Bette Midler tapes; thoughts on McDonald's coming to Singapore; seeing programs about moths on the Discovery Channel; Christmas at Lake Tahoe. I suspect we would have been better off with a structured being-born growing-up falling-in-love story, and I believe Chin could provide us with just such an autobiography. His stories of some of his love-tricks are a gas.

--- Lolita Lark