I’m riding a train this morning to work. Not the subway but an actual train from Philadelphia to NYC. It brings back potent nostalgia for Barcelona.
When I was a teacher I would take a regional train from BCN to Molins del Rei. I didn’t mind the commute, in fact I got excited every time I got on the train. I got excited because I was SO new that I could feel myself getting better every class I taught.
I also loved the small amount of money. I can’t remember but I think it was about €60. I got paid daily, in cash. The day that it was enough to cover rent that month, felt like such an accomplishment: one more month I could make it as an immigrant.
In the United States right now that can be a heavy word, immigrant, but to clarify my circumstance: I moved to Barcelona with two suitcases of clothes, a good amount of savings and a plan to support myself teaching English. I used my savings, taught English, but was unable to secure a visa. So, being undocumented really limited my travel. I couldn’t hop around Europe as I hoped, but Catalunya was enough for me. I also couldn’t go back to the USA until I was comfortable with the possibility I’d be barred from coming back to my new home in Barcelona.
When I filled my envelope under the mattress markered with RENT, the rest was mine. Each day I went to work was another 40 to 60 euros for cheap beer, jamón serrano, galletas Principe, wine, subway tickets, pay-as-you-go cell phone “top ups.” They had ATM style kiosks around shopping centers where you type in your phone number, insert the cash, and then your available balance on the phone gets updated. Wow.
So, each time I got on a train I would look out the window and soak up the sequence of quotidian landscapes. I didn’t know how long I would be there. Each day was an exciting step and I just wanted to keep going.
I can’t help comparing this feeling to present day. Now I ride a train and feel that nostalgia, but rarely look forward to work. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the daily reward and the Pavlovian effect has worn off. I definitely need work to pay the bills, but it’s no longer a day-to-day survival. I also don’t feel that daily progression that I did with being a new teacher. Now I work with a big company that only dares take incremental steps toward some undefined goal of “generate more money/customers.” Most employees aren’t needed for a specific day like a teacher is required each day for a class to happen. My work is spread out over the course of weeks, months, and then I don’t see a final result sometimes for a year.
There isn’t an inherent negative to taking the long view. In fact sometimes it is most valuable. [The Long Now Foundation] I also recall feeling a little lost in Barcelona, taking life in little pieces, with no idea how they added up to a big piece or what the next big piece should be. I’m sitting here on the train again, no longer at a loss for the big pieces, but missing the delight of the little ones.
Perhaps writing is one way to get them. Actually writing this very message feels like mixing the pallet of big and little, but to get meta about it, the act of writing is small in itself. I like that.
“In mere Time, all things follow one another, and in mere Space all things are side by side; it is accordingly only by the combination of Time and Space that the representation of coexistence arises.” Schopenhauer, 1813
The quotes of Owen Meany throughout the book are written in ALL CAPS, which is an effective technique in print to encapsulate the character’s voice, attitude, and other deeper aspects of who Owen is. I’ve “translated” the CAPS into regular case letters so that it’s not as jarring when reading the excerpt. The Audible narrated version is perfectly done, too. I think he really captures such a unique character.
A Prayer for Owen Meany was a moving book in so many ways, but in an unexpected dimension, the political commentary (mostly against the Vietnam War) still rings so true for our contemporary situation.
“What’s wrong with this country?” he wrote. “There is such a stupid ‘get even’ mentality—there is such a sadistic anger.” He turned on the tv, keeping the volume off; when I woke up, much later, he was still writing in the diary and watching one of those television evangelists—without the sound. “It’s better when you don’t have to listen to what they’re saying,” he said.
In the diary, he wrote: “is this country just so huge that it needs to oversimplify everything? Look at the war: either we have a strategy to ‘win’ it, which makes us—in the world’s view—murderers; or else we are dying, without fighting to win. Look at what we call ‘Foreign Policy’: our ‘Foreign Policy’ is a euphemism for Public Relations, and our Public Relations get worse and worse. We’re being defeated and we’re not good losers.
“selling old Jesus-stories like junk food”
“and look at what we call ‘Religion’: turn on any television on any Sunday morning! See the choirs of the poor and uneducated—and these terrible preachers, selling old Jesus-stories like junk food. Soon there’ll be an evangelist in the white house; soon there’ll be a cardinal on the Supreme Court. One day there will come an epidemic—I’ll bet on some humdinger of a sexual disease. And what will our peerless leaders, our heads of church and state … what will they say to us? How will they help us? You can be sure they won’t cure us—but how will they comfort us? Just turn on the tv—and here’s what our peerless leaders, our heads of church and state will say: they’ll say, ‘I told you so!’ They’ll say, ‘that’s what you get for fucking around—I told you not to do it until you got married.’ Doesn’t anyone see what these simpletons are up to? These self-righteous fanatics are not ‘religious’—their homey wisdom is not ‘morality.’
“What’s wrong with both of them is that they’re so sure they’re right!”
“That is where this country is headed—it is headed toward oversimplification.You want to see a president of the future? Turn on any television on any Sunday morning—find one of those holy rollers: that’s him, that’s the new Mister President! And do you want to see the future of all those kids who are going to fall in the cracks of this great, big, sloppy society of ours? I just met him; he’s a tall, skinny, fifteen-year-old boy named ‘Dick.’ He’s pretty scary. what’s wrong with him is not unlike what’s wrong with the tv evangelist—our future president. What’s wrong with both of them is that they’re so sure they’re right! That’s pretty scary—the future, I think, is pretty scary.”