David Barringer
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From Me Then to You Now

Koro is a Chinese word for the hysterical belief that one's penis is shrinking. My wife is a doctor. She says this is a medical condition. A real medical condition. She is aware of it. The medical condition of believing your penis is shrinking is known as "the fear that one's penis is shrinking."

" 'Shrinking,' " I repeat. "If your penis is shrinking, does that mean it's out doing psychoanalysis?"

"You had to work for that one," says my tolerant spouse.

"I have to work for them all," I say.

For example, I am not aware of how, exactly, one uses koro in a sentence. "Jasper is afflicted with a mild case of koro." It doesn't sound right. Can the shrinking of one's penis be mild? Or is the fear mild? What if one's penis is too large, burdensomely so? "Hogarth feigns symptoms of koro, but he knows it is just wishful thinking." Awkward. Anyway, a real condition, medically, of the penis. Or of the mind. Afflicts mainly men.

"Afflicts mainly men," says my wife.

"There is a lot that afflicts mainly men," I say. I am recovering from a bad flu.

"Not as much as you'd like to think," says my wife.

"Women suffer equally," I admit.

"Not as equally as you'd like to think."

"Do women have a koro equivalent?"

"No," says my wife. "They have the same fear."

"That the man's-"

"Is-"

"Very good," I say.

"Thank you."

She tucks me in and takes the coffee mug.

 

*

 

I am recovering from a knee operation. I am home in bed. I read in SiliconIndia that in San Antonio, Texas, the INS illegally singled out, arrested and jailed Indian computer professionals with valid visas. Agents were heard to say, "You people make a lot of easy money," "I can't even afford to buy the kind of jacket you are wearing," and "If I don't put handcuffs on you, you may grab a pen and kill me."

I went to law school with an Indian woman from Texas. She wore shorts in winter. Wearing shorts was either psychological defiance or physiological need. Now she lives in San Diego and has finished her stint in the U.S. Attorney's Office but is staying on to surf every day. Surfing is either psychological defiance or physiological need. The Pacific Ocean is mercilessly cold. I have been in it. Briefly.

When the external temperature becomes too cool, such as when submerging one's self in the Pacific Ocean, the penis and scrotum draw toward the body in a clench of protectionism. It is not a symptom of koro to refuse to swim in the Pacific Ocean. It is common sense. To swim anyway is genius. Leonardo da Vinci said that genius is energy plus will. Energy plus will gets you into the Pacific Ocean. Da Vinci said nothing of talent. Genius does not depend upon talent. Without the snorkel of energy and the fins of will, talent is the bather who from a dune watches the sun set.

Drugged and suddenly woozy, I let the binoculars of SiliconIndia slide off the blanket. I answer the phone and in pours a gull's voice of authoritative hostility. A representative. The State Police and Deputies deploy anti-drug programs in public schools, and they want my pledge of $55 entered into the computer. Can they put me down for that? Can they put me down? "To put down" is to insult a person or euthanize a dog. For what? What did I do? I live in Michigan. Michigan is a state in which the Governor is Republican and the House is Republican and the Supreme Court is Republican and we drive on the Right side of the road and somehow the cops don't have enough money? Can't they sell the pens they confiscate from children in the public schools? (Schoolchildren are writing with charcoal on the backs of their computer monitors.)

There should be a movie in which a patient, scarred by the triage sutures of HMO policy, has to decide in his capacity as chef whether to serve, to a Republican fund-raising party attended by insurance-company executives, old fish or very very old fish. In Seattle, during the WTO demonstration, protesters shouted demonstrably. Police retorted in rubber-bullet imperatives. The chef looks to the cubed grey flesh of Mahi Mahi. He sniffs the smoke curling off the mass of Bluefin. Looks to the grey. Sniffs the smoke. Looks. Sniffs. The degree to which he enjoys handing the plates to the servers is indicated by the delightfully evil grin buckling the scars on his face.

I cheer, but I am not myself. I am on Vicodin or Viking Din because spinal fluid leaked when they removed the anesthetic needle from my spine, and so my brain has less liquid cushion and bangs into the sides of my skull like a testicle in a roulette wheel. Can they put me down for that? I said I would give last year, and I didn't. I said I would. Can they put me down this year? Put me into the computer? Sir, I'll have to ask you to step inside the computer. Today, sir. Right now.

It is said that the interrogated prisoner inevitably confesses. The interrogators are too good at what they do. "A man must not deny his manifest abilities," says William Feather, "for that is to evade his obligations." As for the prisoner, he is grateful to release the interrogator from his obligation to do what is being done to his testicles. Thank you, thank you, you were right, it's better this way, thank you. The prisoner is then permanently disgusted with himself for having, in the end, looked to his interrogator as savior.

I have neither the talent for rotten fish nor the energy for a pen, but there are other ways. Like drooling into the receiver. Um thurry noo thung oo. Like hanging up.

 

*

 

I am recovering from a double hernia. "Daddy, I missed you when you were a little boy." My daughter. Children say the most accurate things.

When I was a boy, I understood, without having the words in which to express them, the three goals among which every sentient being must choose: to achieve excellence in a craft, to achieve importance in a society, or to achieve transcendence in an art. Throughout grade school, I was naturally inclined to guilt and petrified of shame and so worked hard for good grades. Today I stop for turtles. I lift them off hot asphalt and deposit them on thresholds of marshes. I no longer feel the need to claim them in terrariums. As a boy, I collected snakes and toads and turtles and lizards. I read books about the care and feeding of reptiles and amphibians. I did not dream of becoming a herpetologist. I believed I was one. I did not have the awareness to appreciate that I was exploring my own feelings of power by observing the behaviors of captive animals. I set a coffee can containing two lizards on the back ledge of the car during the ride home from Florida, and before the first rest stop, they had fried to crisps. That was a lesson in memory. Don't forget the lizards. Years later, I let my snakes go in a nature preserve. Our toads died. I never replaced any of them. I did not become a herpetologist. I did not achieve excellence in that craft. I stand on the side of the road and wait until the nose pokes out and the claws extend and the cretacean hulk lumbers in the direction of safety. Maybe I wait a few moments longer. Then I return to my car and continue on my way.

My family and I, members of the middle class here at the decadence end of the Western street, have taken long drives in the country beyond the northern suburbs of Detroit and marveled at the new constructions of resort-style communities, and we have seen, let alone saved, very few turtles. Despite my earned capacity to reason, I remain naturally inclined to guilt, and cannot marvel at resort-style communities without wondering how the turtles and muskrats and herons are reassessing the means by which they might achieve their goals. They are forced to compromise. They have energy, and will is not an issue, that I know of, but there are only so many species that can cope with life in the suburbs. Squirrels and sparrows and poison ivy achieve miracles. I make do. They thrive.

I go under and the doctors cut in and snip out the blow-outs and stitch in mesh patches like they're sealing a screen door the cat slit open.

"Magazines are for looking at, not reading." My daughter. She's right. Again.

"Yes, honey. I'm not reading. I promise."

I can't remember what the hell I'm reading anyway. It's sailed off the flatness of my earth and dropped into oblivion. An oblivion whose negative geography contains a humidifier, a blue CryoPack for my knee, a jug of water, a bottle of pills, bandages, tissues, remote controls, personal data assistants. . . . Beyond the flatness of my white-down-comforted king-size continent is a window. A window. Light. What a show.

I apprentice in a craft and have chosen dead masters. I enjoy no recognition. I am frustrated. I am restless. If I cannot accelerate the apprenticeship, I can at least alter the workshop. I can leave the workshop. I can go on vacation. But I don't. But I should. It is hard not to mistake the restlessness for disillusionment. Distraction from the craft is healthy for the apprentice. Defection from the craft is not.

A double hernia. Where does that fit in? It does not fit in. It blows out.

Who is strong? How do you define courage? If suffering is our lot in life, is it also our goal?

 

*

 



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