I recently stumbled across a quote from some old Buddhist scripture which insisted words are not important. Specifically it said that words are only provisional, not really the thing itself. And Buddha wasn’t the only one suspicious of language; even the ancient Greeks knew that words are only stand-ins. In the twentieth century, hordes of French academics made their livings writing words about how words don’t really mean anything. But words mean a lot to me. I am a person of words. I can only make sense of things by writing them down. I don’t keep a journal in order to remember what happened; I write things in my journal so that – by putting my life into words – I can try to figure it out. I guess it is not a very Buddhist way to get to the bottom of things, but I haven’t come up with a better one.
I also use words to decide what’s going to happen. Not just to see the future, but to figure out what I should do when I have to make a decision. I suppose that sounds weird, but there is a name for it, so maybe it’s not so strange. Bibliomancy. It means opening a book at random and getting answers from the words that you find there. The biblio comes from the Greek for book and does not necessarily mean the Bible, but it has been used often with the Bible. For example, my grandfather used his Bible to figure out what stocks to buy more often than he did for any other reason. But it doesn’t have to be the Bible or some other holy book. It can be any book. My grandmother would randomly flip open Fanny Farmer if she couldn’t decide what to make for dinner. Over the centuries people have used The Iliad or Paradise Lost or Middlemarch. You can use any text, because – as the Buddha pointed out – the words themselves probably don’t mean much. Everything is in the interpretation.
I was brought up by my paternal grandparents and have no idea if my parents ever practiced bibliomancy. My father was killed in Korea when I was two and my mother was caught up in the beat scene (read hard drugs) in the fifties and disappeared even before my father was killed. I don’t remember her, although I used to see her parents a couple of times a year until her father died and her mother went into a nursing home. It’s my father that I am named after and it was his parents that brought me up. They brought up a little Frankie twice and never seemed to mind a bit. I guess it’s through them I get my penchant for opening books for answers. I do this in the more common way when I read. I love to read. But I do it for answers when a particularly perplexing problem comes my way. And I don’t use the Bible. I use the book that has meant the most to me. I use Gulliver’s Travels.
I learned to read early, but I never liked it much, not until the tenth grade when we had to read the first book of Gulliver – the one about Lilliput. This educational version of Gulliver’s Travels was edited, as I found out later, to delete the scene where Gulliver puts out the fire in the palace by peeing on it. But I loved Gulliver, even without the pissing episode. I went on to read Books Two through Four and have re-read the whole thing almost every year of my life. I could go on and on about the Travels and only wish that Swift had written other novels. I still have the unabridged copy I bought used when I was fifteen, and when I have a problem I close my eyes, tumble the book around so I don’t even know if it is right side up, open to a page, and point with my index finger. Then I open my eyes and try to figure out what it means and how it applies to my life.
I must say that my wife does not think much of my method of decision-making. She doesn’t know that I only agreed to marry her when I opened to a sentence in the second book of the Travels which warned that “I should be guilty of Ingratitude if I omitted this honorable Mention of her Care and Affection towards me, which I heartily wish to lay in my Power to requite as she deserves, instead of being the innocent but unhappy Instrument of her Disgrace, as I have too much Reason to fear.” Gulliver was talking here about the child that took care of him when he landed in Brobdingnag, the land of the giants. But Melissa was pregnant, and I interpreted the passage as a divine order from the Dean of St. Patrick’s to do the right thing. So, I quit college after my sophomore year and went to work. But I had liked school, so I kept on reading whatever I could get my hands on.
Anyway, Melissa knows about the Gulliver’s Travels business because I told her about it in earlier happier days when we actually had conversations, but she put her foot down when I wanted to use the book to name our first child and the best that Gulliver could come up with was Luggnagg. We named our son Francis III and I kept my decision-making process to myself from then on. Years later, it occurred to me that the book probably wasn’t really saying we should name Buddy (that’s what we call him) Luggnagg, but just to point out how ridiculous names are and that to saddle the poor kid with one that’s been used twice before was probably not fair. As it was, we never called him Francis or Fran or even Frank (what they call me). Buddy has always been Buddy. Anyway, when our daughter was born I quietly tried again, but when the book produced the evil-sounding moniker of Glumdalclitch, I never even mentioned it to my wife. We named the baby Gloria after Melissa’s mother. Of course, we never used that name either once Buddy started calling his sister Sissy. My kids, Buddy and Sissy. Grown and married now, but no grandchildren yet. I hope they have kids, but I certainly would hate to see Buddy and his wife generate a Francis IV. Gulliver’s first name was Lemuel. That’s what I wish they would name a grandson. Or Jonathan.
Everyone needs a guide in life, and I need one more than most. I find life very confusing, and I have no instinctive feeling for what I should do. People around me don’t seem to have that problem, but then again maybe they are just good actors. Or, possibly, they have some kind of guide, a handbook for Life 101. Of course, most people have chosen guidebooks in life that don’t seem to work very well. I live next door to a born-again Christian, but when things start going badly for him he gets mad. He says that he knows he is just being “tested and tempered by suffering,” but in his heart he doesn’t think he deserves it. Charlie is an angry man. My backyard neighbor Ralph doesn’t believe in anything but money. His guide is the bottom line. If something makes money for him or saves him money or makes him look like he has money, it is a good thing. And vice versa. This latest recession has been hard on him. He still has his job, but I think a lot of it was on commission and he has big bills. He’s angry too. Ralph and Charlie might think that they have things figured out, but it isn’t that easy, and they aren’t that happy.
I know that I can’t figure anything out, but at least I am dependable and steady. Gulliver kept running away to sea when he couldn’t stand life (or his wife) anymore, but at least I stick around and try to think about how to handle things, what kind of attitude I should take. I try to adapt to the situation. Gulliver was ridiculously rigid and impatient to get away while at home (“I stayed but two Months with my Wife and Family; for my insatiable Desire of seeing foreign Countries would suffer me to continue no longer”), but when he got among midgets or giants or talking horses, he turned out to be pretty adaptable. Of course, he had no choice since he was marooned. I often wonder if old Gulliver would have had a better life if he had been as patient and flexible at home as he was among the midgets and the giants and the talking horses. On the other hand, I often feel like I am living in a world that is as strange as Lilliput. I may be more or less the same size as people around me, but other than that they all seem pretty weird. I am not quite as gullible as Gulliver (is that where he got his name?), but I might be better off if I were. Most of the time I am just confused.
Right now, Gulliver and I are the same age. At least, Gulliver was fifty-nine when he came home from the last of his travels and presumably when he started to write them down. And Swift was about fifty-nine when he wrote Gulliver (anonymously of course).You probably don’t remember, but Gulliver loved the talking and very sane horses in Book IV so much, that he couldn’t stand the smell of people when he returned. He called them Yahoos since they resemble the dirty humanoid figures that act as slaves to the horses. As I said, Gulliver was not very adaptable at home. But he still is able to teach us something.
It’s not that I think that the Travels is holy or anything − or that I would recommend it to anyone else − but it works for me. When the world around me starts getting really strange, I go to the book. And lately, things don’t make any sense at all.
It all started when we got a new person to do data entry in the warehouse. I manage the warehouse for a company that makes sports equipment. I won’t tell you the name of the company because this is kind of an embarrassing story for them. Actually, they used to make sports equipment right next door to the warehouse, but now they import most of it from China or the Philippines. But they still need a warehouse and I’ve worked here my whole life. I get things done and I don’t cause trouble, and when people yell at me, I don’t quit. I started as a stocker and worked my way up. We used to do our own hiring (mostly relatives of people that already worked there), but now Human Resources does it, and that’s how we got Lucy. Lucy is about twenty-two and a very emotional young lady. She gets the work done, but not without a lot of noise, and I had to ask her many times not to use her cell phone at work. She usually shot back at me that was an “emergency” and glared at me as if I was preventing her from hearing her grandmother’s dying words or something, but it was pretty clear that her emergencies were mostly related to a boyfriend named Josh. The last few days I was at work, the calls had decreased and tears had increased. I thought she and Josh had broken up, and I hoped things would blow over and she would stop crying and the cell phone usage would decline.
But last week I was called into Human Resources to see the Director herself. Her name is Myra Ross, and she is extremely skinny with close-cropped pale hair through which you can see the veins on her skull. She looks like she either just finished chemo or just got out of a concentration camp, but she has looked that way for years so I guess she does it on purpose. I hardly know her to talk to, so I started to be afraid that she was going to tell me that the company was moving the warehouse to the west coast or something. That was the worst thing I could imagine. But my imagination was not working well enough, because what she told me was worse. Apparently Lucy had accused me of propositioning her, touching her, saying lewd things to her. I didn’t know what to say. I kept asking Ms. Ross if she was sure that Lucy meant me, if she hadn’t confused me with someone else. This was not likely, as I am her boss, but it was all I could think of.
Ms. Ross asked me if I wanted to get an attorney or some other advice, because this was a serious matter. The company could get sued and I could lose my job. She said that they had decided to suspend me while they did an investigation, which she led me to believe would involve interviewing the other people that work with me in the warehouse. That made me feel better. Most of those people knew me well and liked me. Although, there are a few that I have tangled with over schedules and attendance and one of these was Rose, the only female full-time stocker. God knows what she would say.
Ms. Ross then told me that I should think about “the matter” and that maybe an apology and a letter of reprimand in my file would go a long way to making Lucy happy. Now it did occur to me at this point that Lucy had been with the company for less than six months and that I had been there for over thirty years and no one had ever tried to make me happy. But so be it. I did ask for a written copy of the charges against me. I am, as I said, a person of the word. Ms. Ross said that so far it was all verbal, but that they would be writing up a report and I would get a copy.
So I am at home. I haven’t told my wife yet. I just said that I had a bad headache and thought I would take a couple of days off. She’s been thinking of yard chores for me to do when I feel better. But I doubt whether I’ll feel better any time soon. I am in one of those strange worlds that Gulliver lands in where I don’t know the language, I don’t understand what is going on, and I can’t figure out how to escape.
I can’t even figure out how I got here. Now, Lucy is not a pleasant personality to have around – too much anger and tears – but she is a good-looking girl. She has glossy black hair that hangs down her back and dark eyes and wears a lot of dark eye make-up and deep red lipstick. She looks Italian to me, but her name is Riley. She almost always wears dresses to work, which is unusual in the warehouse. And there was usually a long expanse of leg between the hem of her dress and the strap on her high heels. While the rest of us are wearing out a pair of orthopedic shoes a month running around on these cement floors, she comes tottering through the door in those strappy shoes. Of course, she only has to sit in the office and tap on the computer. She is also well-endowed in the chest area. So I guess the fact that I even noticed that means that I must have lusted in my heart in some way, but not much. I knew better. My wife is not an easy person, but I knew from the beginning that Lucy would be real trouble. I guess I was right.
I have never cheated on my wife. Of course, Gulliver never did either, although he was also wrongfully accused of messing with some gentleman’s wife in Lilliput (a little hard to imagine how the big and little parts would fit together though). And, of course, we only have Gulliver’s word that nothing happened and he is certainly not a reliable narrator. And he did sit on the bosoms of some of those gigantic women in Brobdingnag, bouncing up and down on their nipples for the delight of all. Close-up and enlarged, Gulliver claimed to find their breasts disgusting. I think Lucy would probably be pretty disgusting close-up too, but more because of how she acts than how she looks.
The truth is that Lucy was easy to look at. I tried to think about whether I ever stared when her tops were cut low or her skirt squinched up her thighs, and I don’t think so, but I had to glance at her once in a while since I passed her going in and out of my office about a million times a day. And I have to admit that I especially remember a red blouse with ruffles disappearing down a deep vee and the black bra straps that kept slipping out of the arm holes of a navy blue dress that she liked to wear. But I never said anything and I don’t think I ever gawked.
A couple of days later, Ms. Ross called to say that they had finished the report and she would send it to me. Apparently no one else in the warehouse accused me of anything, but Lucy had provided dates and times for my offensive behavior. When I got the document the next day, I checked the alleged dates against my calendar to see if I could catch Lucy in a lie – saying I did something when I was on vacation or something. But I am almost always at the warehouse, so this was not helpful. Somehow the accusations looked even worse on paper. I certainly didn’t recognize myself as the Yahoo that Lucy was describing, but − in addition to her say-so − she had a drink-after-work girlfriend ready to testify that Lucy would tell her these creepy things about me every evening. The friend sounded about as reliable as Gulliver, but, sober and with their cleavages covered, I had a pretty good idea how the testimony of the young ladies would go down.
I called Ms. Ross again and she sounded pessimistic, but suggested that if I apologized and agreed to an extended suspension and to go to harassment training, I might be able to hang onto my job. Unless, of course, there was another incident. When I tried to tell her to tell her that I could not have another incident since I never did anything in the first place, she got hostile and asked if I had retained a lawyer.
I called my cousin Dickie, who is an attorney in California. Dickie
sounded amazed that I had gotten myself into this kind of trouble − almost as amazed as when he realized that he was losing his curly black hair and my lackluster brown mop wasn’t going anywhere. Dickie is a year older than me and was the only child of my father’s sister Annie, who lived with her husband Richard just down the street from my grandparents and me. Dickie is the one in the family who is known for his adventures with women. He is the only one who ever has adventures of any kind, usually involving (according to him) getting the better of someone else. When we were kids he beat me up because he was bigger and because it felt good. Now he is a successful lawyer and beats me up just by condescending to talk to me. In both cases, the goal is for him to feel good and for me to feel bad. He usually doesn’t make me feel bad, but as long as he doesn’t know that, Dickie is happy. Anyway, Dickie told me that most lawyers would want a $5,000 retainer just to take the case. Then he paused and confided that a lawyer probably wouldn’t help me much.
Dickie asked me if I was afraid to tell Melissa, and from the way he said it I could tell that he found Melissa pretty scary himself. Most people do. But the truth is that I’m not afraid of my wife. Although I have never been unfaithful to Melissa, she has been cheating on me for years. With Charlie – the born-again guy next door. I can always tell when they’ve been together because she is nicer to me and because we always have a new pile of deli stuff in the fridge – Charlie owns a delicatessen downtown and my guess is that they meet somewhere nearby and then Melissa goes to his store and “shops.” And the funny part is that she usually brings home things she knows I crave – like lox and onion bagels. Anyway, her affair is a trump card to keep up my sleeve and that card is worth a lot more since she doesn’t have any cards on me yet. I would like to keep it that way, I guess, but if I had to bring it up to shut her up about Lucy, there would be a certain satisfaction in letting her know I’m not as stupid as she thinks I am. I would never want Charlie’s wife Evelyn to find out though. Actually, if I thought that there was any chance that Charlie would take Melissa off my hands, I might be more inclined to bring the situation to a head. But there is no chance. Charlie will never leave Evelyn or Pastor George or his attachment to a huge amount of resentment over what it takes to get into heaven. Charlie is an angry born-again Lilliputian.
So here I am trying to figure things out. Trying to imagine what other people are thinking. For example, what is Lucy’s motivation? Is she trying to make her (ex) boyfriend jealous? Or make sure there is no way she can get fired? Or does she just like attention? Did someone help her think of this? Or, is she mentally unstable and really thinks it happened? What did the company – represented by skinny Myra – want me to do? I am a pretty valuable employee at a pretty modest salary – do they just want me to apologize and come back to work with my tail (hidden) between my legs? Or do they really want me to quit?
If I asked Charlie what to do, he would tell me that I should persevere for the truth and the Lord would take care of me. After all, it certainly looks like the Lord is taking care of old Charlie (with Melissa’s help), even while His seventh commandment is being ignored at least twice each month. My neighbor Ralph would tell me to do whatever I had to do to save my job, reminding me that my pension benefits would not really kick in for a few years. Cousin Dickie would (and did) say the same, but added that I should try to get some kind of agreement from Lucy that my apology would be the end of the matter (fat chance). Melissa would probably not believe that I was after Lucy, but insinuate that I must have done something stupid to end up in this position. And she would talk about the embarrassment to her of it all – and that’s when I would bring up Charlie. None of these were appealing alternatives.
So I turned to Gulliver. There are many ways of doing bibliomancy; but, not being part of any formal group which practices this art, I have made up my own ritual. I have always worried my subconscious would lead me to certain sections of the book I know so well. For instance, in this situation, they could easily lead me to the beginnings of one of the voyages or the end of the book, where Gulliver makes it clear he can’t wait to get away from his family (at the end of the book he doesn’t leave again, but he pretty much moves into the stable with the horses). Such a passage would give me an excuse to leave Melissa and Lucy and the warehouse and the kids and heading out for parts unknown. That has some appeal, of course, but I want the book to tell me what to do. I don’t want to predetermine things in any way.
So, when I am alone in the house, I close my eyes and juggle the Travels so I don’t know which end is up. Then, I set the book up with its spine on the table, held upright and slightly open by the flour canister on one side and the sugar on the other. I then take a bookmark and close my eyes and spin myself around a few times and try inserting the bookmark between the pages of the text. Without opening my eyes, I open the book at that page, bring my index finger down on the text, and then open my eyes. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work – I come down on a blank page or a map or something indecipherable. But most of the time it works well and this time it worked well indeed – at least, after some consideration.
From Book IV, Chapter IV as Gulliver was trying to make his Master (a Houyhnhnm or horse) understand how men in England did not always tell the truth: “My Master heard me with great Appearances of Uneasiness in his Countenance; because Doubting or not believing, are so little known in this Country [the land of the Houyhnhnms], that the Inhabitants cannot tell how to behave themselves under such Circumstances.”
Gulliver’s horses did not even have a word for lying, because they never did it; and, when informed by Gulliver this was something Englishmen did all the time, they called this practice saying the Thing which was not. The horses argued that “the Use of Speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive Information of Facts; now if any one said the Thing which was not, these Ends were defeated.” So said the Houyhnhnms.
While Buddha might have said words are not important, Gulliver’s horses disagreed and I’m mostly with the horses on this one. My current dilemma was a good example of the power of words. And I am, I reflected, like Gulliver’s oh-so-rational horses, not knowing how to behave myself when people start lying about me. Of course, to the horses, our use of language for lying and doubting was what made Gulliver and all the rest of us into Yahoos. Even the Buddha would probably agree with that assessment.
Gulliver ended up having to go back and live with his Yahoo wife and children and civilization (the horses threw him out of the land of the Houyhnhnms), but he never really accepted it and Gulliver was pretty miserable. He used to stick herbs up his nose so he wouldn’t have to smell the Yahoos (“I began last Week to permit my Wife to sit at Dinner with me…yet the Smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my Nose well stopt with Rue, Lavender, or Tobacco-Leaves”) and slept in the barn with his non-talking horses. Gulliver couldn’t accept the atrocity of his own kind. I can’t really accept it either. No, I put that badly. I can accept the way people are; I just don’t like it. Some people, many people, lie and cheat on their spouses and often take enjoyment in other people’s pain. So why should I be surprised? I simply need something to stick up my nose until it’s over. Because my only other alternative is to confess to something I didn’t do, to tell a lie and just join the rest of the Yahoos, and then I’m afraid I would smell so bad nothing I could stick up my nose would help.
So I think I will just pour myself an Irish whiskey and stuff my nose with the smell of a roaring fire kindled with these Yahoo documents I got from the skinny lady and read Gulliver’s Travels again, at least until Melissa gets home. And if anyone asks me about the mess at work I will say I have no idea how to respond to “such Circumstances,” and it’s just some Yahoos “saying the thing which is not.”
I hope Melissa brings back some lox and onion bagels.