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Bad Dreams and Flowers for Algernon

by Dr David, Editor, Publisher

The cat is a savage. Wild, murderous, greatly skittish, except for the fact that he has always lived with humans, he is a street cat. He's not much for affection, rarely allowing himself to be carried, held or even caressed, and then, mostly when he's just come in after a cold night on the prowl. He rubs up against you only when it's time to be fed. He scratches when playing, whether the object of his entertainment is a string or stick or the hand holding either. Most annoyingly, when he is settling down to sleep on your warm belly or lap he kneads it, purringly, with his claws fully extended. The sensation is like having sets of small needles rhythmically pushed into your flesh just short of drawing blood. Still, since from the most important point of view we all get what we deserve, I can't complain.

When I was 11 or 12 I read and was deeply impressed by a novel, Flowers for Algernon. The story concerns an operation that radically improves intelligence, first performed on laboratory mice, including the eponymous Algernon, later tested on an severely intellectually disabled human, Charlie. (The book was made into the Academy Award winning movie, Charly, which I don't believe I saw, but things from so long ago are rather vague, aren't they?) Postoperative Charlie's IQ rises to 185. Some short time later Algernon loses his genius and then Charlie loses his. After Algernon's demise Charlie, super-genius that he is, realizes that he is also doomed. Later, poignantly, he feels his intelligence slowly ebbing away.

My regular routine has me working on rising, then up on my roof for yoga each morning, then down for breakfast and more work. Usually, avoiding the midday sun, I emerge from my lair late afternoon for a bicycle ride, sometimes associated with errands. A couple of weeks ago exiting the coolness of my house, pedaling way, I was struck by how good the sun felt on my back. Coming from the frequently cloudy Northeast, I was further struck with gratitude that here, in this perfect climate, I have the luxury of picking and choosing, of avoiding certain types of sunshine.

Honi's tomb

In this I am reminded of a Talmudic story, Honi the Circle-drawer, who was also meteorologically choosy. Coming out of his deep meditations, Honi asked the people why they were all crying. They informed him that they were in the midst of a great drought. Compassionately, with staff he drew in the dust a circle around himself and addressing Heaven declared that he would not step out of the circle until it rained. Compassionately, it began to rain, but only in a drizzle. Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.

Jackie Mason

This in turn reminds me of a Jackie Mason routine. A gentile goes into the restaurant and orders two sunny-side-up eggs, toast and orange juice. Moments later a Jew goes into the same restaurant and orders two sunny-side-up eggs, toast and orange juice, adding, "I want the white of the eggs cooked fully, but the yolks completely runny. And spread the butter all around the toast, not just in the middle. And please, I want just a little pulp in the orange juice, not too much." Laugh if you will, but as they say, "It's all in the details."

Struck as I was by my gratitude that day on my bicycle, I then felt ashamed by how ungrateful I usually am. Case in point: earlier that week, for the first time, I considered accepting Social Security for which I have been eligible for one year now. (Happy birthday to me.) I realized that even the smaller monthly payment they are offering me now, barring any emergency (dios prohiba), modest as I am, would be sufficient to live comfortably in Mexico; even if I do not put it off in favor of a larger payment later, even if I do not make any other money. This feeling of security, like coming within easy range of the shore after a long swim, contrasted with my normal, largely self-imposed, sense of striving. As I could have started collecting a year ago, here again we have a case of gratitude postponed.

A few mornings after my revelation on two wheels, I woke in the predawn from a dream. In the dream I was with my partner (my ex-wife, Nancy?) at Rabbi Gopin's Shabbos table Friday night. We two along with the Rabbi and his wife were alone together at a large empty table that filled a large living room. The table exended through an arched entrance into the usual dining room and filled that room also. There in that other room were two or three persons at that table, which was, like our section, 80-90% empty. It was the kind of arrangement you'd make for Thanksgiving with the extended family, except the seats were vacant. We were standing while the Rabbi cup in hand, standing aside his wife, recited Kiddush, the sanctification of the wine that begins the festive meal. But none of us were festive. The Rabbi chanted the short prayer, feebly and a bit groggily, making a mistake right at the start, saying "Yom Shishi" ("Day six") instead of "Yom HaShishi" ("The sixth day"); a small mistake, you might think, but, with much residing in the details, especially true in ritual matters, enough to render invalid, or at least imperfect, the ceremony.

In the dream I was disturbed by the error, the Rabbi's feebleness and the largely empty table. Waking I continued to be disturbed.

Lying there in the darkness I felt my own errors, my feebleness, my emptiness. I felt full of pity for myself; I who had not been caressed, not held or touched enough as an infant or child. I felt cold inwardly, disqualified, broken, ruined, unable to receive. I felt my ingratitude, my dissatisfaction with the present, for what is; my constantly searching for other and more. I understood that with this I was tricking myself. That my imagined "better" was a device that alienated me from accepting the now. I understood that I could not receive.

I saw the emotional woundedness of my siblings and from theirs could infer my own. I saw others, who have not been damaged so, who were able to participate in and more genuinely enjoy life.

I felt how my anger is never far below my surface, quick to come out; my aggressiveness towards people who impede my progress when riding my bicycle or with whom I interact, a general hostility... I understood that just like my savage cat, I was quick to take offense and scratch.

Waking from the dream I felt miserable, hopeless, lost. I cried.

My daughter

With Flowers for Algernon in mind and my dream, this week I mentioned to my daughter that I am just smart enough to know that I am not smart. I could have added: I am just talented enough to know that I am not talented; just loving enough to know that I am not loving. I did add that I could write, but that really I am more of an editor than I am a writer. My daughter, who supplements her living doing technical writing, understood what I meant. Ah, the crime of heredity.

At the end of the Flowers for Algernon Charlie suffers from dim recollections of his former, short-lived intelligence, recollections which made darker still his renascent intellectual disability. Similarly, I experience occasional flashes of intellectual or emotional genius, that, like after a brief bright light, make my black night blacker. I imagine love in my own crippled way. I glimpse life, but am separated from it. Swimming in the waves, I am lifted on a breaker to see the shore, but, oh, so far away.

Now, with the Biblioteca closed, I am rooting around in boxes in my bodega for books to read, books saved for just such an exigency. I've come up with Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim [chassidism]. Buber, but less so than Spinoza before him, is fruit that fell and rolled far from the tree of Jewish philosophy. (Spinoza rolled clear out of the garden.) My preference is for the real, orthodox article - kabbalah, mystical Judaism, chassidism. My belief is that the best oranges never make it out of Florida. They say that the Rogochover Rebbe, the chassidic spiritual leader of the city of Rogachov in Belarus, was ten times smarter than Einstein. Shortly before Einstein's death, when he was asked, what he would do differently if he could live his life again, he replied without hesitation: "I would study the Talmud."

Buber's book is a long list of short anecdotes, tales of the chassidism. Two come to mind here. One is of a man who is instructed by the master, the Baal Shem Tov, in the mystical intentions (kavanot) he is to keep in mind while announcing each subsequent note of the Blowing of the Shofar (ram's horn) on Rosh Hashanah. For greater security he writes these meditations down in a list on a piece of paper. On the holy day itself, aside the master, who is ready to trumpet the notes, the poor man looks for, but cannot find his list. Unable, either, to remember those mystical intentions, he breaks down in tears and simply, plainly announces the notes. Afterwards, the master compliments him, "There are many keys in the king's palace, and intricate keys open the doors, but the axe is stronger than all of these and no bolt can withstand it. What are all the mystical intentions compared with one really heartfelt grief!"

Martin Buber

The second is a teaching the Baal Shem gave to a disciple, a single line, "The lowest of the low you can think of, is dearer to me than your only son is to you." Think not of the "lowest of the low" outside yourself. Think of the "lowest of the low" of your own spirit.

Chassidism emphasizes a contemplative, joyous, direct relationship with the Divine, accessible even to the uneducated person. In this context, grief and lowness of spirit are openings. There is a chassidic axiom, "Every descent is for the purpose of an ascent." So, I have hope yet of waking up, of discovering that, in some strange way, my deficiencies have made me strong, of finding that my "bad" dreams are good after all.


Dr David studied chassidus with the rabbis, practicing orthodox Judaism for seven years.

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