From BRUCE PATTERSON
[Why I quit Gambling: part 1 here]
When I was a little boy I heard on the radio an Okie ballad I’ll never forget. It was about a no-count hobo who used a dog-eared deck of cards to preach Gospel. A highfalutin sort of numerology, the lyrics were, with Biblical significance attached to 4, 13, 52 and 1 through 10. Add the symbolism of ranks, suits, jacks, queens, kings and, by golly, in a deck of cards you could find Chapter and Verse.
And that goes to show that, if you reach long and hard enough, you can make a finger-painting into a map of the world, a bowl of Cheerios into a star-chart, an array of tossed bleached vertebrae into a crystal ball. The ability to make nonsense of experience, to find chaos in order, impose want and fear on reality and see personal affirmations everywhere—how human is that? Whether the game is checkers or chess, love or war, everything is as deep as you wish to take it. Even though we are suckers for answers, our lives begin, and end, with questions.
Einstein wrote that “a sense of mystery is the source of both science and religion.” The mystery begins at birth and ends in old age, this sense of awe and uneasiness, discovery and exile, being a part and apart, everything and nothing and never finished until, alas, we are: poof.
When I returned from combat I felt like I’d been gutted and that whatever was left of me I’d have to get to re-know. To help fill the hole I charged headlong into the study of history, beginning with the origins and nature of my country’s war in Asia and working outward from there. Why? Because you can’t know where you are without knowing where you’ve been, and you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are. Unless you are standing on a high point with a panoramic view, a map and compass does you absolutely no good. Ignorance is death.
Along the way I stumbled upon the Zen precept that “All is one, one is none, none is all” and it made perfect sense to me. All the evil I’d done and had done to me; all of the misery I’d seen and had gone through was a sparkle on water. The one part of the Bible these millionaire media “conservative Christians” never preach from is Ecclesiastes, but I was drawn to it: “God, this too is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”
A few years later, while working in the anti-war movement in LA, I made friends with a nuclear physicist who was old enough to be my dad. By then I had rejected what’s called Western Dualism—the notion that the world is made up of good guys (us) and bad guys (take your pick), the wise and the fools (take your pick) etc, etc, etc. So once I complained to him about how, by compartmentalizing everything, science missed the unity of all things.
After looking quizzically at me and chuckling under his breath, he said: “E=MC squared.”
You talk about knocking a boy off his high horse. If I wished to find the meaning of the word “universe,” he was telling me, I should crack a dictionary.
Science is logic applied to experience, after all, and logic is mathematical. Every classification under the sun is a part of a deck of cards.
Every year around the world “consumers” throw away mountains of money buying self-help books. Yet, as the late great George Carlin pointed out, if it’s self-help you’re after, why do you need a book? Think about how many more billions of dollars are spent every year buying books—think of them as racetrack tout sheets–explaining the meaning of one’s individual personal life. You talk about heartless confidence men and women getting rich off the gullibility of innocents. Hell, I’ll explain it to you right here for free: you are roughly one seven-billionth as meaningful as all of the humans living on earth today. That wasn’t true a century ago, and it won’t be true a century from now. Does that make you feel better? It should. At the very least, think of all of the money you’ve just saved.
This is the 20th original story of what will be 36 in January of next year (I’ll be starting my next book about then), and it’s the first one that’s given me real trouble. I’m a storyteller and humorist, and not an essayist, yet here I am starting an essay. But I’m heading north in the morning, to Mt. Rainer in Washington and points east, and I’m not going to toss this fragment. Already I’m thinking about how much fun it’s going be to write about travel again, which was what I thought many of these stories would be about by now. Yet so far I’ve posted only two. One, Culture Clash, is a funny bit about a day spent sightseeing in Morocco, and the other, Solitude, isn’t so much about travel as about Sacred Place (great pictures in that one).
Anyway, if a race horse is forgiven for making an occasional false start, so it should be with me. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite stories:
Confucius was walking alone in his garden when two of his students approached and asked that he settle their dispute. The first student steadfastly maintained that the sun was closest to the earth at dawn because then it appeared as a plate whereas, at noon, it looked like just a pea in the sky. The second student insisted that the sun must be closest at noon because that’s when its heat was fiery whereas, at dawn, it was just an ember.
When they begged to know who was right, Confucius replied: “I do not know.”