One good thing about insomnia: at least it’s reliable. Like a good boy I went to bed early last night (10:30 pm–it’s now quarter past three am), and when my wife Jina came to join me about an hour ago, she praised herself on having the wherewithal to go to bed relatively early herself for a change. I got up to use the toilet and rummage for cough drops in my backpack as she assembled herself between the sheets with her earbuds on to mainline vitamin J (for Jesus). When I went back to join her, I started coughing, my cold still intact despite liberal infusions of ginger tea with honey. My mother-in-law, a trouper, sent us a big-ass bag of ginger from down south that she shaved herself. While the job only took her about an hour (she must have those John Belushi samurai genes, even though she’s Korean and not Japanese, which would be an unforgivable faux pas to say out loud in this country, due to the uncomfortable history between these two nations, especially the ongoing perennial dispute over the pair of islands Koreans call Dokdo and Japanese people call something else, even though I’ve seen pictures of them and they’re nothing special, at least not to look at), it would have taken me about three times that long. I probably would have chopped up my fingers to boot and added them to the mix for a little cannibalistic twist.
Jina overheard my blasphemous sound effects over the stentorian exhortations of whichever fascistic minister du jour she’d downloaded, and asked me if I still had a cold. I answered in the affirmative.
Jina: If you believe in Jesus, it will go away.
Stew: Thanks for reminding me.
Jina: Thank you.
Evidently, either she’d turned off her sarcasm radar or else she was turning the other cheek for a change, a strategy she seldom employs, despite its being one of her savior’s most note-worthy recommendations. Last Friday while talking to a couple of my adult students, I rolled my eyes, then asked them if they understood what that meant. Apart from their advanced level of English, it turned out they didn’t, so I explained it to them as a way of expressing sarcasm through body language.
I told them: “I didn’t want you to think I had some kind of nervous tic.”
I didn’t bother to explain what a nervous tick was (a blood-averse parasite, perhaps? “What’s the matter, George? Your conscience getting the better of you? Too good to drink blood with the rest of us? Stop defying your instincts and get down to business, lad!”). When you’re a talkaholic who teaches English as a foreign language, you end up having to dig yourself into an even deeper hole by having to explain shit so much of the time.
Of course, we EFL and ESL teachers are supposed to “elicit” everything instead, students’ unresolved confusion be damned.
Speaking of damnation, yesterday after I finished weathering the minister’s incomparably tedious blows in church, and Jina and I joined a family of toddlers at the church cafeteria and the kids and I cracked one another up by making goofy faces, I had to engage in one of my poopier duties by reading aloud to a group of old Christian men and one lower middle-aged, equally Christian woman and her holy-as-thou husband a story submitted to me by one of the class members written by one Dr. M. L. Rossvally, a surgeon in the U. S. army during the Civil War (couldn’t tell you which side he supported, though I’ve read business was booming), shared electronically with anyone in the world who’s interested on Reverend (?) Charlie Coulson’s website, entitled “The Drummer Boy–A Christian Hero of the American War.” (“American War” is certainly a scary phrase, and I must say it’s also a trifle redundant nowadays too, if by “nowadays” you’re including the past hundred years or so.)
The procedure goes as follows: I dictate a phrase or a clause and the class echoes it back to me. One guy always lags behind a bit so I have to wait a moment for him to finish after everyone else has repeated the words. Every half page or so I’ll stop and point out a misspelling or grammar gaffe just to keep the mood from becoming too reverential. One of the students is a retired English professor, so he appreciates this anal-retentive attention to detail and interprets corrections for the class.
Since the story was longer than the usual burnt offerings the professor foists on me, I read a little faster than usual so I could get the hell out of there and relax at home by myself for a change (which luxury I actually had, since Jina ended up attending the afternoon “service” too; she’s always been a glutton for punishment, as long as it’s administered by the invisible puppet master above).
The story was told in the first person from the point of view of the surgeon, who claimed to have treated a boy who’d been wounded in battle. The doctor knew he was going to have to amputate an arm and a leg (I won’t supply the obvious joke). The boy had big blue eyes, just like Frank Sinatra or Paul Newman, so the doctor turned on his best bedside manner and offered him some chloroform to ease the pain. The plucky young stoic refused, saying he had Jesus insurance and didn’t need the stuff.
The doctor asked if he’d at least like a little brandy just in case; again, the stalwart blessed fellow demurred, made macho by his faith. He prefaced his refusal by saying his mother had warned him as a child not to drink so he wouldn’t end up a lush like his father. He bragged that he’d never drunk anything with more of a kick to it than coffee or tea in his life (and I’m not sure how strong the coffee was back in those days–probably pretty damned weak in this kid’s case, just in case that particular “vice” also pissed Jesus off).
Besides, he added that there was a strong likelihood that he wasn’t going to make it, and would soon be reunited with his creator. “Would you send me there with brandy on my breath?”
The professor interrupted my sacred recitation to ask, “What is the meaning of this phrase, ‘brandy on my breath’?”
I was tempted to say it was a line from a salacious love song, but thought better of it. I told the class what it meant. They remained puzzled.
“What the boy means is that he doesn’t want God to smell alcohol coming from his mouth when he meets him.”
This God fellow can be mighty petty, can’t he? For Christ’s sake, the poor kid’s about to get his fucking arm and leg hacked off, he’s been a true believer since he was a sperm cell, and God’s going to get all upset over one measly swig of brandy. What a prick.
Speaking of people getting upset, get a load of what happened next.
The students still regarded me with looks of Irish setter-in-the-headlights incomprehension.
So I went on: “Have you ever drunk brandy before?”
They shook their heads, more or less as one, despite their stubbornly residual individuality.
“Well, it’s delicious. Especially in winter–warms you right up.” (I stopped short of saying, “You should try some,” much as I wanted to. It would have been my good deed for the day. In fact, I’m sure God him- or herself would also have approved. A friend of mine who’s a reformed Christian once drew my attention to a couple of Bible passages that extol the virtues of strong drink in certain stressful situations. They don’t call it the good book for nothing.)
At this, one of the students, an old man who’d never given me an attitude before, got up and left. I didn’t try to prevent him or ask him what was the matter, but continued reading the heart-fondling story. Maybe he had another engagement, but I have a feeling I’d hit a nerve. I hope so; it’s a volunteer gig, and even though I have no illusions about converting anyone to agnosticism, it’s important to remind people that not everyone thinks exactly the same way that they do about every fucking thing in the universe.
The plot thickens: after the doctor performs the operation, expecting the boy to die, he goes home, but can’t sleep, so he returns to the hospital to find his patient still alive. The doctor has promised himself not to soften towards the boy when it comes to his ferocious faith; since the doc is Jewish, the idea of attributing the kid’s great strength to Jesus is distasteful, to say the least.
But during his late night visit, the boy tells him he loves him because he’s “a Jew. The best friend I’ve found in this world was a Jew” (meaning Jesus himself–until he converted to Christianity, that is).
(Doesn’t it make you feel all warm inside? I too am wetting my pants all over again.)
After reading the paragraph about the heroic Christian boy’s pro-Semitism, I drew the class’s attention to the following clause: “While you amputated my arm and leg, I prayed” that the doctor would be the lucky recipient of Jesus’ good lovin’.
“It should say ‘while you were amputating.’ You want to use the past continuous tense in this case instead of the simple past, since it describes the longer action in the sentence. I imagine the amputation took some time. Doctors couldn’t perform laser surgery in those days; the surgeon in the story probably had to use a hack saw, which would have been a painstaking job.” (Not to mention painsgiving.)
This got a giggle from the woman in the class; no doubt as a nurse by trade, she appreciated the black humor of the medical reference. It always startles me when I find members of my wife’s church who respond favorably to irreverence, unless they’re just being polite. They all happen to be female; chalk it up to a greater share of open-mindedness on the part of the fair sex. Too bad there was none left for Jina when God’s hors d’oeuvres plate came around to her.
The story concluded in the aftermath of the narrator’s conversion (to–guess which religion). He went to a prayer meeting in Brooklyn and heard a tale from a old woman with lung disease who wasn’t sad about her impending death because it meant she’d be reunited with her son in heaven. She mentioned what had happened to him, how he’d been helped by a Jewish doctor, and that when the chaplain sent her the boy’s Bible (don’t leave home without it), he included a letter explaining how her son’s deathbed wish had been to convert the doctor (got to rack up those brownie points for a box seat in heaven’s colosseum).
Beside himself, the doctor ran across the room and gushed how he was the one she spoke of, and the boy’s savior was now his savior, and the love of Jesus had won his soul.
“Isn’t that a wonderful story?” the professor asked me.
“Would you mind if I kept this?” I asked. He interpreted my attachment to the document as a yes to his question (even though I didn’t deign to answer it) and sentimental piety, even though I deflected such an assumption somewhat by saying I wanted to show it to Jina. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I found it a purple-prosy rag dripping with sap (regardless of the potential veracity of the tale; it might be true for all I know. So what? I’ve never responded well to the hard sell). I just needed it to refer to while writing this piece.
As I got up to leave, exchanging hearty goodbyes with these offshoots of the congregation, the nurse gave me two hard boiled eggs, presumably to replace my missing balls. Later on, I gave them to my wife to eat.
Jesus himself never had it so good.