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A Separate Reality

I stepped a few inches to the left. Didn’t feel any different. A few inches back. Maybe something? No. I hadn’t really thought, though, that, during P.E., I’d be able to find my place of power.

I’d started reading Carlos Castaneda a few months before -- at the end of sixth grade -- my art teacher, Anna, had introduced me to him. Anna had taught me a lot of things. I’d learned about Taoism; I’d shown her my poems; she’d tried to show me how to throw on the wheel. She’s my mentor, I thought. Don Juan was Carlos’s. He’d taught him to talk to coyotes. Once, they’d flown over a canyon. He was trying to teach Carlos how to see.

I stepped a few inches back. Silly, I thought; much too hot. People don’t believe that in Phoenix it’s still hot in October but it is! Far away, I could hear the boys shout. As long as our team was winning, there was nothing for me and Douggy, the other fullback, to do.

Nothing but think. I wondered if I could explain Castaneda to Doctor Kurtz. Maybe he already knew. Castaneda’s an anthropologist, I imagined saying. His books are nonfiction. But even with all of Castaneda’s western knowledge, he is Don Juan’s student -- and not always a good one! He’s always intellectualizing, I imagined telling Kurtz. Don Juan tries to teach him not doing. Tries to show him the invisible world.

I probably won’t get far, I thought, explaining this stuff to Kurtz. I have to work on my patience. Often when I saw Doctor Kurtz we didn’t end up talking about the stuff I’d intended to bring up. Because of this there was still a lot he didn’t know about me. He didn’t understand about Anna. Perhaps he never would. I looked over at Douggy, lost in his own world.

To my left, the field was lined with a row of pale palo verdes through which "American Pie" could be heard from a senior's car parked on Montecito. Behind me the goalpost's double white crucifix. Beyond them, if I turned my head, I could see the power lines leading past South Mountain to the desert. Power lines, lines of power, the lines of the world. Don Juan said you could feel them in your hand, these imperceptible white fluorescent fibers crisscrossing the air. Sometimes, standing on the dead grass field, in the heat and the afternoon glare, I felt I could.

A hundred miles to Mexico. I could follow the power lines, I could turn and start walking. I imagined the TV movie they’d make, the point in the afternoon when someone would notice. I wouldn't get to see the movie, I’d die in the heat; even Don Juan's friend, Don Genaro, couldn't find Ixtlan on a map.

I’d almost finished A Separate Reality, Castaneda’s second book. Next: Journey to Ixtlan. A Separate Reality was hard to put down; I’d stay up reading late into the night. I’d always been a big reader, my parents had encouraged it. Still, my father had begun to worry that I spent too much time in my room with books. If I was outdoors more, he reasoned, I’d have more friends. If I just gave sports a chance. I do give them a chance, I’d argued. “Just try to be open minded, Mark,” he’d insist. “You might enjoy it.” I am open minded, I thought. I’m making the best of the situation. Sometimes he made it sound as if I purposely didn’t want to have friends. But it wasn’t my fault Tim Goldner had moved to Wisconsin. And I do have new friends, sort of. Even if they’re older. Sometimes I thought Doctor Kurtz understood my position. Sometimes I thought he was taking Dad’s side.

I heard, in the distance, the shouting. A crow flew overhead. It was unfair of Dad, I thought, to accuse me of not-being-open-minded. Why couldn’t I just let go of these thoughts? Let them float off? Useless to be angry. Before introducing me to Castaneda, Anna had told me about Lao Tsu. His teachings weren’t incompatible with Don Juan’s, I told myself. There were differences. But a lot of overlap! Yield and Overcome, said The Tao Te Ching. I tried this approach at school and sometimes it worked. Don Juan was always telling Carlos he was too impatient. My problem too. Too impatient with myself, with others. Too impatient to have a vision. Anna had had visions, when she’d gone hiking in the canyons. I’d come close, I thought. But it would take time.

Sometimes wanting something too much stood in the way of it happening.

I looked over at Douggy. We were at the two far ends of the body’s bell curve, me thin, him fat, always the last two chosen. "Crush, kill, destroy," he muttered, lethargically, from his side of the field. I hoped he wasn’t getting started: sometimes when in a bad mood, he’d be the sheriff and arrest me. He’d drag me out to the dry wash, where, while I practiced not doing, he’d sit on me next to an anthill. He’d sit until I confessed; this didn’t usually take long. Yield and Overcome. I knew it wasn’t anything personal. He was on automatic. Sometimes he and Tim Ratter would pants me, throwing my shorts in the weeds at the edge of the field.

A ball came whizzing toward us. A cloud of boys rushed in pursuit. I tried to stop it but didn't have the gait of power. I ran like a girl. "Get it, big guy," Dan Baltz, the blond-haired center, shouted. An affectionate sort of joke: "big guy." Dan was popular and he was nice to me -- or at least decent. It was, I knew, part of the personality he'd chosen. But sometimes I wished he would ignore me the way most boys did. His "you can do it" made it worse when, in a gawky display, I missed.

Douggy missed too. Their team scored. John Mazur, who used to hide under the bleachers with me in fifth grade, rushed by without looking in my direction. John, who wasn’t much bigger than me, had gone out for football the year before. He'd transformed himself. I hadn't. Occasionally he was still friendly. Dan Baltz was always friendly -- no risk to him. Dan, trotting past, slapped me on the shoulder. The game again became a far-off thing.

After P.E., I walked up to Anna's room but she wasn't there. On the way to my locker I passed the teachers' parking lot and saw her truck.

Her light green pickup. I planned to drive a pickup too someday. I couldn't imagine what other car I would drive. I wanted to be able to think of some other car besides one just like hers, I wanted to be a little different, but I couldn't think of another car that would have the same magic.

The other cars, Mr. Lewis's Buick, Mrs. Binder's Ford, were just cars.

Anna's pickup had a bumper sticker: "I love trout." I knew my parents would never have a sticker that said "I love trout." Ours were for the UJA and the Sierra Club.

Dr. Kurtz leaned back, a bemused expression on his salt-and-pepper bearded face. On his desk, three kachina dolls, a large black notebook, a box of Kleenex, an ashtray. Above him, diplomas from the University of Indiana and the Menninger Institute.

"I'm wondering why you changed the subject," he remarked.

"I thought we were done with that." We'd been talking about my problems with my peers. Peers: we’d circled like crows around the meaning of that word. Peers in what sense? I didn't want to say I was better than anyone, but I kept getting cornered into it. Maybe I had changed the topic because I was angry. I didn't know what I felt. Should I still be going to Dr. Kurtz? Maybe I’ve outgrown him. I’ll talk with Mom, I thought.

"Why don't we try something," he suggested. "You don't have to . . ."

"O.K.," I replied, trying to sound upbeat and open minded.

"Think of someone you want to be better friends with."

"O.K." Dan Baltz. John Mazur. I didn't know who I was supposed to think of.

"Imagine some activity you might ask them to do."


"Have you imagined something?"


"What would it be?"

"Go bowling."

"So now can you picture asking this person to . . ."

"I don't think it would work."


"It would just make things worse."


"It would be like . . . it could be humiliating."

Baltz would never go bowling with me. And it would be a major mistake to ask him. "Mark, I wonder whether you sometimes make things complicated as a way of defeating yourself. You're always able to come up with reasons to not do things."

"I am not," I whispered, pulling into myself, wondering if he was right.

He hesitated, then continued. "How would it be humiliating?"

I’d tried to explain this before. Things were O.K. in school as long as I didn’t push too hard. If I stayed in my place, Baltz and at least some other people would be friendly. Baltz wouldn’t want to do anything with me. Being realistic was important.

Birds chirped in the atrium. Anna corresponded with a poet in San Francisco. A woman she knew was building her own house in New Mexico. Why couldn't I have friends like these? Why did I have to be friends with people I had nothing in common with?

Anna had had me to her house several times. She lived with her husband Karl, a woodworker, in a house on the west side. She’d shown me her ceramic sculptures. A group of older students met there once a month. They read poetry and smoked pot. I hung out with them in the Art room, and, I thought, I was starting to be friends with them. Although none of them liked me as much as Anna did, still, I had a lot more in common with them than with the kids in my grade. But Dr. Kurtz, I knew, wouldn’t take me seriously if I said so. He was only interested in peers.

Being in the same grade doesn’t matter, I thought. That’s seeing things superficially.

“After all these years of learning you should know better,” said Don Juan. “Yesterday you stopped the world and you might even have seen. A magical being told you something and your body was capable of understanding it because the words had collapsed.”

“What was the thing that stopped in me?”

“What stopped in you yesterday was what people have been telling you the world is like.”

Should I start the next chapter? I lay on my bed in my room, beneath my Simon and Garfunkel poster. Lilly, my mouse, went round in her wheel. Sometimes I didn’t like to start something when I knew I was just going to be interrupted. And I will be, I thought, any minute. The late afternoon light cast shutter patterns on the wall. I wished I could be more like Lilly. Centered and simple. Less thoughts.

I heard the knock on the door. I closed the book and went down the hall to dinner.

Mom had made spaghetti. I was glad because, unlike Carlos, I didn’t eat meat. Although I’d agreed with my parents that I would sometimes. Anna ate it sometimes too. The sauce was delicious. It had artichoke hearts. Mom and Dad talked about the problems we’d been having with the irrigator. He didn’t come when he was supposed to. Dad thought he was a drunk. I drank my sun tea. My older sister Sharon looked bored. My younger brother Jason looked bored. Parts of the lawn were dying, Dad said.

"You're too weak," he said, "you hurry when you should wait but you wait when you should hurry."

"How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts."

"You think too much. Now you think that there is no time to waste."

"What can I do, Don Juan? I'm very impatient."

"I had rather stand at the threshold of the house of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness."

"Live like a warrior! You failed with the guardian because of your thoughts."

Mom looked and saw I wasn't reading the Union Prayer Book. She might have thought this clever. Once, years ago, I’d read Newsweek during one of Rabbi Horowitz's sermons. Everyone had laughed about it afterwards. My parents hadn’t liked Rabbi Horowitz. But he’d been fired, and now we had Rabbi Berger. Beth Shalom had hired him out of retirement in Fort Lauderdale; my parents liked him. Mom thinks I’ve been disrespectful, I thought. Even though I was certain Rabbi Berger couldn't have seen the book, I felt ashamed. I put Carlos on the floor under the folding chair and returned to the responsive reading.

I still hadn’t talked to her about quitting Kurtz. I’d almost -- but then felt unsure. Kurtz said that a lot of the time, when you wanted to stop therapy, it was because there were things you were scared to deal with. Things in your unconscious mind. Both he and Castaneda believed in unseen worlds. Maybe I would talk to Mom tomorrow.

After the service, during the Oneg Shabbat, I stood next to my parents while they talked with the Nachmanns. They were discussing Watergate, which was interesting, but then Mr. Nachmann brought up the membership committee, which was not. I walked over to join Sharon, who was talking seriously with Dr. Wagner. Jason stood next to them, eating sugar cubes from the silver bowl by the coffee machine. I took a few and put them in my mouth. Once, at Bob's Big Boy, some tourists had been given L.S.D. that way. They hadn't known what was happening so they'd had a bad trip.

Dr. Wagner turned to me. "How are you doing Mark?"

"Oh fine."

He didn't have anything to ask and I didn't have anything to say. The sugar dissolved in my mouth. Dr. Wagner asked Jason about Little League. Jason, looking down, answered quietly. I slipped out the glass doors into the dark.

The lights glimmered from the houses on the other side of Quail Run Drive. I’m ready, I thought; ready to quit Kurtz. I’d been going for five years. I’d first been sent in second grade; I’d told everyone at school that I wanted to be a girl; Mrs. Ross had called my parents and they’d called Dr. Kurtz.

I’d grown, over time, more realistic.

I wandered away from the building. I’ve changed in many ways, I thought. Weird that people lived in such different worlds. My parents couldn’t imagine Anna’s. They didn’t realize that I didn’t care, any longer, about temple. Not much. I used to care more, I thought, though never in the way Sharon does. I kicked a twig down the sidewalk. Although I like some parts of the Bible, I thought -- Ecclesiastes, Micah, the Song of Songs -- I’d never known why the God of the Jews meant so much to her. Maybe, I told myself, she’d seen something in Youth Group. I’d tried to make him powerful in my head the way Don Juan was -- it hadn't worked. I walked toward the darkness and the creosote smell. To her, I thought, he was wondrous. To me he'd always seemed like someone I'd grown up with, a friend of the family, an uncle perhaps. He did say some interesting things. And he had a mysterious side. But so does Mr. Nachmann. So does Dr. Wagner.

Squishing tiny skyblack fruit into the concrete, I walked slowly down a path lined with olive trees, tracing my fingers along the cool, dusty surfaces of the cars. I headed toward the empty unpaved section of the parking lot. The light and noise of the building grew distant and the dark seemed to grow more full and alive. I felt alert in the blackness; I should try, I thought, to find my place of power. But once I’d thought this, I couldn't feel anything. I tried to let my thoughts go. But the trying, I knew, was standing in the way. I had to be patient. This was always Carlos’s problem; and I had to accept that it was mine too. I shouldn’t be so conceited. It often took years to become a warrior. Sometimes it was happening even when you didn’t know it. There were so many contradictions.

Still nothing. I knew the dark was full of invisible fibers. The lines of the world. To the north, the Phoenix mountains. To the south, on the horizon, aureoles of light, white, yellow, red. There were radio towers and, in the distance, the tiny Papago buttes. Somewhere, Mexico. Something moved in the creosote. A jackrabbit? Jackrabbit, I thought, was just the name we gave it. I had to let the words collapse. Perhaps the jackrabbit was really my guardian. Perhaps it was a sign. But I shouldn’t want it to be. Anna said that in poetry you had to let things happen. Let them come to you. Not force them. If I wanted it to be a sign, it wouldn’t be. Let your thoughts go, I thought, knowing this was a thought, trying to let it go.

Practice not doing. The clouds above the mountains were mysteriously white, white as dayclouds, milk spilled on a dark cloth. I began to feel something. But it was as subtle as the breeze rustling the leaves of the olive trees. I tried to pay attention to it, as if I were listening to an almost silent pulse, which seemed to disappear and then come back again. I moved very slowly, letting it lead me. I walked toward an acacia tree next to the chain link fence at the desert-facing edge of the lot.

I wondered if I should touch the tree. I stood there in the darkness for a while.

In the car, on the way home, my parents discussed how Beth Shalom could get more members. A lot of people had quit during Horowitz. They had to be persuaded to come back. "Why was Horowitz so terrible?" Jason asked.

Why is he asking? We all know what Dad will say: because Jason’s the youngest, he doesn’t remember how upset everyone had been by the weekends of couples counseling in the mountains near Payson. He doesn’t remember how Rabbi Horowitz had been rude and evasive when Dad and Mr. Nachmann had questioned him about getting the board's authorization to use the van. Dad had never seen why a temple needed a van in the first place. Now they’d gotten rid of it -- Rabbi Berger couldn’t even drive.

"He wasn’t so bad when he started," Dad said calmly (not in my head, but from the front seat). "But then I suppose he got carried away. Started to think he was some kind of prophet."

"Rabbis played many roles in the Talmud,” Sharon replied. She’d liked Horowitz more than my parents.

This is so boring, I thought. They’re going to ask me what I think. I don’t think anything. But if I don’t participate, Dad will say I have an attitude problem. I wondered what Anna was doing. I wondered if she would invite me to one of the poetry readings. I wondered if I would smoke pot. I still wanted, in some ways, to be part of the discussion in the car. But in more ways I did not.

"That may have been so in the Talmud, but we're not living in the Talmud," Dad commented.

“She wasn’t saying we were,” Mom said, mediating.

“Anyway, Jason," Dad continued, "to answer your question, as I was going to do before I was interrupted, he did things he wasn't authorized to do. A rabbi is a teacher. But a teacher of psychology? And if he's going to teach psychology, why gestalt? Why not Freud or something that's been proven?"

Sharon sighed again. I wondered what Dad would think if I quit Kurtz. I still wasn’t sure what to do.

"The point is, Jason, a Rabbi works for the community. That's what the van business was about. He should have gotten our permission. Otherwise, what's the purpose of a board?"

The question hung in the car as it moved down Glendale Road, past the Frontier Bank's lit fountain, past the school, past Texaco. Above, the stars were chromosomes of light. I pressed my face against the window, trying to get back the feeling I'd had in the parking lot. I could, somewhat.



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