Though I enjoyed the recent Marvel Avengers film, I nearly slept through a climactic scene in which Midtown Manhattan is, once again, destroyed. I say once again, as the scene is uncannily reminiscent of both the recent Godzilla remake and the Day After Tomorrow. In the latter movie, a tsunami hits the United Nations building and a Russian tanker floats down Fifth Avenue, as beleaguered refugees head to the New York Public Library. On a positive note, there was some insinuation toward the end of the Avengers film that the next sequel will feature the evil villain Galactus, who eats up entire worlds. Perhaps Marvel will also bring back my favorite superhero, the Silver Surfer, and maybe even feature the psychedelic Dr. Strange.
The Avengers might have focused more on the interpersonal dynamics between the superheroes, and taken the viewer on a journey to other, lesser known neighborhoods of Manhattan. Fortunately, my new surreal and satiric novel, Post Academic Stress Disorder, does just that. In a recent article, the New York Times writes that "Post Academic Stress Disorder is a wry novel about the anarchists, spiritualists, health nuts, pet lovers, and pie-throwers of the East Village."
The novel focuses on Andy Friedman, a young professor who entertains megalomaniac ideas of success. Hoping to overcome the pettiness of academic life, Andy imagines that he might be transformed into a charismatic figure like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, leading the anti-imperialist charge against Washington and George Bush. Or, failing that, Andy might simply settle for a greater sense of purpose and a settled community as he moves back to Manhattan from graduate school.
Will the larger than life characters in Andy's life, including a dynamic therapist named Bob -- who bears an uncanny resemblance to Wolf Blitzer -- and an off the wall Tibetan lama named Norbu, foot the bill? Will Andy gain solace from Ninotchka, a snowy white and irrepressible canine companion descended from the sturdiest Arctic stock (seen here on the cover, riding a cosmic surf board much like the Silver Surfer)?
Fortunately, Andy teams up with his own band of activist Avengers in the East Village, including the Yippie generation Pie Man. What is more, he meets up with a colorful character named Pete, who resembles Dr. Strange. In this scene, the two head to a zendo in the neighborhood:
As we arrive at the door of the zendo a man bows. Pete and I bow back. There's a thick cloud of incense in the sparsely furnished room. In the main hall lie two benches where other recent arrivals are taking off their shoes. The zendo members, I notice, are middle aged and serious looking. Presently someone rings a great gong and people file silently past a screen door.
I follow Pete who sits down on a cushion. I notice one vacant mat but forget the order in which to bow. Was it first to the cushion and then to the wall? I can't remember and feel self conscious. As I am sitting on the mat another gong rings and everyone breaks into Japanese chant. The sound reverberates through the zendo creating a strange and eerie echo effect. What am I doing here? What is the point of all this? I think back on how I might have made a quick stop at the Middle Eastern food stand. They now had a new special: $4.99 for a falafel wrap, which was double the size of a normal baba ganouj sandwich.
At the end of the chanting total silence descends on the hall. I see that everyone else has crossed their legs. I try to do the same but as my knees crack I decide to sit with only a half cross. As I am sitting there trying to maintain my posture someone starts to bend my shoulders from behind.
"Keep your posture straight, you must be disciplined!" says the zen master.
He bends my back until I am seemingly leaning far to the left. How could this be correct? It doesn't feel straight at all.
"Out with the garbage!" yells the zen master. "Concentrate on the here and now!"
I keep thinking that I would like to concentrate but every time the master starts pacing in back of me I feel paranoid. Pete has advised me to practice the same breathing techniques that we used in ping pong. But my efforts to focus prove fruitless. Every time it seems that I am getting into a rhythm my thoughts turn back to my academic supervisor.
That's right, I think, reflecting back on Bob's comments in therapy. When did Pickering ever look out for my interests? Before I can help it my mind starts to review every slight I'd experienced in graduate school. I remember my first meeting with Pickering at Yale. The room was so cluttered that I'd had to sit in an uncomfortable chair in the corner. Pickering was seated at the other end of the office. I remember having to practically shout to get my point across. My mind now racing, I recall how he'd written sarcastic notes on my dissertation drafts. How he never returned my e-mail and always delayed when I needed important letters of recommendation. I remember how he rarely agreed to meet with me. Then when we did see each other he acted as if he was doing me a great favor. I imagine that I will now give him a piece of my mind. Like the Silver Surfer who eventually spoke up against Galactus, I will tell Pickering how he's been an insensitive prig.
"You're not paying attention!" intones the zen master, moving my shoulders to the left again.
Ripping myself back from my fantasy I wearily resume my breathing routine.
Then my mind turns back in panic to Mr. Meléndez. Surely, my problems with Dr. Pickering paled in comparison to the murder plot at school. What if Meléndez should kidnap me and demand a ransom? For a moment I have a horrible nightmare about Meléndez taking me back to Colombia and being held prisoner. My oppressor calls my mother in Soho.
"What have you done with my boy?" shouts my mother, her voice trembling.
"I need 100 grand by tomorrow, or the professor gets it in the head."
Just as I feel like the panic is subsiding the bell rings again. The others start to stretch their legs and stand up. But over the past 45 minutes my legs have fallen asleep and I'm having difficulty regaining circulation. Before I know it Pete and the other zendo members are starting to file into a line. My legs still feel cold but I worry that if I don't get into line then the master will upbraid me again. I lift my legs but no sooner am I standing then I feel a prickly sensation. Falling down on the mat with a thud I hold my lower body in pain.
"What did I tell you?" Peter whispers. "Just stay there for a few minutes. Don't try to get into line until you've regained circulation."
Though no one is looking at me, I imagine that now I will be looked down upon in the zendo as an inexperienced meditator, a dilettante. At long last I recuperate and rejoin the procession. But I can't quite get the knack of the walking, and wind up crashing into the person in front of me. I notice that the others are holding their arms up with their fists clenched against their chests. After about 15 minutes of walking I am having difficulty maintaining my posture.
At one point in the walking, Pete's blackberry goes off. To my surprise, he actually answers it.
"Ashley, is that you again? I can't talk right now, I'm doing walking meditation! What's that? Your patient died?"
Pete's voice now has a note of alarm. At any moment, I expect the zen master to interrupt Pete's conversation or confiscate the blackberry, but he does nothing.
"How am I supposed to know what you should do?" Pete exclaims. "Yeah, I know I said you should give him 70 ccs, but I was just joking! You could lose your job and also go to jail! Why don't you just falsify the report? Alright, gotta go, hasta!"
Presently we walk back to our original positions in front of the mat. But then people sit down again. I can't believe this --- more? How can this be? Then I remember that Pete warned me we would sit for two sessions. My stomach starts growling and makes a loud commotion in the meditation hall. We have now turned round so I am no longer facing the brick wall but a line of other people. Sitting in front of me is a beautiful woman wearing a loose dress. Every time I try to resume my breathing technique I become distracted looking at her plunging neckline. Looking across the room I see Pete who appears totally relaxed, despite his recent conversation with Ashley. Why is he composed and I'm having such a hard time? It doesn't seem fair.
To my relief the gong finally sounds. Everyone gets up and bows. Some prepare for a special tea ceremony.
"Here," says Pete, handing me a tea cup.
The beautiful woman with the loose dress approaches me with a kettle of green tea.
"Now just tilt your cup at a slight angle," Pete says. "It's part of the ceremony."
I start to obey but become distracted looking at the woman's neckline. Part of the tea falls on my hand. I try to make believe that it's nothing but it burns like hell. At long last Pete motions for us to put on our shoes. I bow to the beautiful woman and we walk down the stairs. Outside people bustle this way and that, determined to get to the movie theater or check out the latest Japanese restaurant.
"How are your legs?" asks Pete later as we sit in Tompkins Square Park.
"I think I've gotten my sensation back," I say.
Judging from my aching joints and psychological disorientation, I sense that it would be a long time before I could reap any benefit from sitting meditation. Still, there was something to this practice. Perhaps it could be an interesting tool to deal with my problems. Bob always said that I spent too much time in my head and that I needed to be more present in the here and now.
"Is there any place that's a bit less, well, militaristic?" I ask.
Pete smiled and promised to take me to the Himalayan Center.
"They're a little less hard core than the Japanese," he says.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Post Academic Stress Disorder.