Postage for the Physical Envelope, or, the Complacencies of the Old Man’s T Shirt

by Tom Jacobs

ScreenHunter_26 May. 02 17.02 I stick a patch on my shoulder and I think of Einstein’s brain. It’s in a vat, the brain, that is. A brain in a vat. The body is long gone, but the brain remains. A controlled-release of nicotine enters my bloodstream and I also think of Dean Moriarty, the father I never found. I think of Einstein’s brain and of old Dean Moriarty, each barreling down toward the vanishing point of I-80, one beside the other, pursuing the ever-receding sunset.

ScreenHunter_27 May. 02 17.02 Einstein’s brain travelled across country in a jar. His brain sat shotgun (well, in the trunk, actually, but it’s nicer to think of his brain sitting shotgun). Then there is Kerouac/Sal Paradise with Cassady/Moriarty, careening down I-80, the interstate that slices right through the US all the way out to San Francisco. And then back again, culminating at the? ass end of I-80, at the George Washington Bridge, the view of which was once afforded to me out the bedroom window of one of my first apartments in the city. I would look at the bridge and imagine the road beyond, and the bald head of the sun sinking into the earth, and think of “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it.” My mind travels Westward into the night like Einstein’s be-vatted brain, but my body remains rooted in my apartment on 181st street. And really, my mind, too, is trapped in the envelope of my body, such as it is, that stares out the window imagining all the people dreaming.

Dickhead that I am, I don’t know if this is important or silly.

I lived in that apartment by the bridge a good decade ago. I feel the same longings and boredoms and worries now as I did then, but I don’t think I’d quite recognize that guy staring out into the night and smoking and thinking. The physical envelope remains similar (sure, a bit pudgier, wrinklier, a little less spry—I’d recognize me), but my mind has morphed in unexpected ways. If my brain, as it existed then, were preserved in a vat, I’m not even sure I’d want to have a beer with it, so different are our interests and priorities. Somewhere in mist of projected disciplines and life designs, there are the fragments of my desire to do what I think is right and good, of how I should spend a proper evening. But even that is susceptible to doubt.

Since I am trapped in the curious hive of my own enskulled mind—as I assume we all are—I have also to assume that my own experience has some resonance. What is common and normal? Very hard to say. I, for instance, took up the perverse habit of tearing hangnails all the way back until they bled and caused a certain amount of pain and trauma. I remember the first time I did this in college. I do it today, as well, although less often than then. But this tiny little practice brings me into some kind of communion with my former and prior selves. It is a kind of ritual, actually. The only reference to this sort of thing in literature that I’m aware of is the following, from DeLillo’s Point Omega:

Before I fell asleep, eventually, was thinking when I was a small kid how I’d try to imagine the end of the century and what a far-off wonder that was and I’d figure out how old I’d be when the century ended, years, months, days, and now look, incredible, we’re here—we’re six years in and I realize I’m the same skinny kid, my life shadowed by his presence, won’t step on cracks on the sidewalk, not as a superstition but as a test, a discipline, still do it. What else? Bits the skin off the edge of his thumbnail, always the right thumb, still do it, loose piece of dead skin, that’s how I know who I am.

This is, in some small way, how we know who we are, how we recognize ourselves, through these little unrecorded riguals and private practices that provide some kind of inter- or underweaving of our sense of self. There are those moments when I find myself reluctant to step on a crack, or desirous to tear the skin off my thumb. Sometimes, even, I will be walking down a blacktopped road and recall myself driving my Mongoose dirt bike down a similar blacktopped road in 1983 on my way to the public pool in Seward, NE, my towel bedraped around my shoulders like every other kid driving his bike to get there. Past and present fuse into some uncomfortable temporary whole of momentary being.

I feel the desire to shape and carve my own adamantine being out of the mess of my physical being, which is so unwieldy and unformed, like one of Michelangelo’s slaves emerging from a block of marble. Cigarettes are relevant here.

The cigarette: a “symbolic instrument,” a “sacred object or an erotic one, endowed with magical properties and seductive charms, surrounded by taboos and an air of danger—a repository of illicit pleasure, a conduit to the transcendental, and a spur to repression.” (Richard Klein, Cigarettes Are Sublime). Smoking, particularly now that I’m trying to forget it and leave it behind me, seems a form of incantation, commingling of self with thought. This sounds overwrought but I’m serious. I find it hard to write or think without cigarettes.

Time was, I would wake up with a hacking cough. A cough that seemed to reverberate beyond the physical. As if my very soul, my very being, were tensed and constricted and would then release into some kind of unknotted sense of liberation. There is something about smoking—it’s enjoyable and deadly; it films extremely well, and it does, despite whatever anyone else might say, make you look cooler in certain contexts.

The hacking cough immediately alienates my soul from myself, my mind from my being. The two couldn’t be further apart. One is palsied and hacking up terrible things, the other is floating out over the world in a state of ecstasy and wonder. My mind is reminded of my body, and neither gets along with the other. And yet there are moments.

Mental elegance and eloquence and are always impressive. But there are few things more marvelous than physical grace. Brian Doyle defines it thusly:

Physical grace: a certain easy carriage, an authority of lightness, a liquid quickness or liability to litheness .. an unselfconscious ease, a comfortable residence in the body and world. All cats and women have it. Nearly all vegetative things. Most children, most animals, most trees. Many men. Generally the larger the entity the less grace; this is why we are agog at grace in the largest athletes and animals…

Tennis, soccer, football, dance. It’s all amazing to watch slackjawed and with dilated eyes and eyeballs.

Some of my friends are dancers. I often wonder how their relationship to the envelope of their body differs from my own. Rather dramatically, I suspect. Coordinated and integrated and fused in some way. My own body, while still relatively young and not completely ravaged by time, is, however, getting there…it’s moving in that Bukowski-an direction. My body and myself are not really on the same page. It is in sickness that I feel physically bound to the world. The body. The body politic. Anatomies of things. The body is the cardinal metaphor, the way we understand things. Crisis, trauma, and wounds may be one of the most basic ways we understand experience, beyond concepts. Or maybe even language.

The thing that is bad for you is sexy, pleasurable. You want to eat it, kiss it, whatever it. The taste of a cigarette—so disgusting to the non-smoker—is, in fact, a kind of taste of mortality. The cigarette brings you necessarily into some kind of relationship with the world, rather than the earth.

The envelope that contains me and the thing or spirit that I imagine myself to be are not the same. Not reflexively mappable, one on to the other. We don’t even share the same interests. This is a problem. How to bring body and mind into some kind of harmonious convergence?

I have the desire to escape my skin—like ectoplasm, the nonsensical idea that an immaterial entity can leave a material residue. The goo of ghosts. What the non-tangible spirit leaves in our material realm.

When I first visited my son, who is now sixteen (?!) , in his new home in Duluth, he showed me around the house and eventually took me to his room. He had, of course, a secret laboratory (with microscopes and telescopes and even some dangerous looking batteries that he had taken apart to observe the constituent components). All of this was pretty cool and I was impressed. But then I looked at his bed. There were, perhaps, a hundred little post it notes spread around the perimeter of his bed. Each had either words or sketches on it. I asked what it meant and he explained that when he goes to sleep, there is a moment between consciousness and unconsciousness, a moment when ideas come flooding into his brain faster than he can keep track of them. So he has the post it notes by his bed so that he can record whatever it is that passes through this sophisticated mind of his. There are notes on poems, on perpetual motion machines, on possible designs for human flight apparatuses. The very things that truly matter in some way.

I stood there breathless and aghast. What had become of me? Why don’t I have an array of post it notes?

Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen—there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic id doesn’t require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. (The Human Stain)

The deathly pleasures of the cigarette, the shudder of an involuntary cough, the habits and rituals of physical debasement and bad decisions. These are the things that make monists or dualists of us all. Me, I think I’m a monist. We are made of dirt and breath and stars. But still I feel the peculiar sense that I am not reducible to me, to the matter of my being. None of us are, of course. Dean Moriarty and Einstein are instructive here.

They are humming down some forgotten highway. The sun is setting and they don’t know where they are going to spend the night. I imagine Moriarty turning up the radio and lighting another cigarette, thinking that somehow, someway, things will work out. And in the background, even if it’s only in the quietest aspects of his cortex, there is a voice that whispers. And it whispers this:
I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift in lacy jags.

Moriarty pauses to gaze at Einstein, then the road, then at both you and me. His mind continues to whisper:

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.