John Gallaher

The Belief Systems of People Who Don’t Think They Have Belief Systems

We’re not the people we think we should be, but maybe we’re
enough. That’s the good way of thinking of it, of looking at our
small failures that get us through the day, or not even that, really,
as if “getting through the day” were a competition that we make
constant conscious decisions regarding. It is a competition,
though, nonetheless, but usually the default “how I got through
the day” is something more along the lines of “I didn’t think about
it all that much.” Twenty years of disappointment, and you get
the same TV stations as anyone else. Derrida has it that we’re
“tattooed savages” meaning that your voice is tattooed (or
preformatted) by received texts, if I could trust he was really saying
it, and not just following along in the script with a highlighter.
Most days, though, it’s the kid or dog or whomever looking up at
you and so you do it, whatever it is, somewhere between being an
actor and reading a choose your own ending story, where you
follow the walkthrough, because that’s the only way to go, but
you get to choose the doors, only you have to choose ahead of
time, not knowing what “go with Brad” is going to end up meaning
for you. Sometimes you get the do-over door, though, and that’s a
good one, but some of the others can be a pretty hard slog, as
you have to sign the “Consent to Terminate Care” papers at the
hospital, or you’re in this car with this beautiful, willing person,
right? It’s an emotional song, and the singer’s singing it with just
that right hint of emotion, but emotions are for teenagers, the
singer might well be thinking, as the singer’s paid to do this job,
good money or bad money. Maybe the singer’s thinking about
dinner, or the lack of options, but you’re in the car with this
person and you’re suddenly crying. That also helps. So we thank
the song just as we thank the memories we create of ourselves
that are too hot or too cold or just right, a Goldilocks way
out of the woods, where we sit some night thinking about it, not
sure if we’re remembering it or just what people have said about
it, like remembering the way home so well you don’t remember
making the drive and now you’re home and it scares you a little.

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It’s Only Difficult if You Try

It’s a fragile thread, you know? Any morning, you’re thinking
about the dog or the trash, and then there’s this little pain
up the side of your neck or up your left arm. That’s a kind
of difficulty, as well. Otherwise, we’re trapped in a long
series of SUDOKU experiments. I’m watching this TV
show, and it’s “Test Your Brain Day.” They say to try to fill
in this acrostic, then listen to John Coltrane’s “Blue Train.”
And try again. What we find out is that music—it helps
if it’s music we like and I like John Coltrane’s “Blue Train”
—gets the brain to a happy place where it’s more willing
to fill in acrostics. I’m imagining a song right now, then,
maybe something like the second solo in Neil Young’s
“Like a Hurricane,” but even more so, a moment that’s
so perfect, that the brain fills in all the acrostics there are
at once. A song so high and wild there will never need
to be another, which is me kind of quoting Leonard
Cohen, because now I’m thinking about music, like how
they say if you play the favorite songs of Alzheimer’s
patients for them, that they’ll wake up a little, maybe
tap their feet or clap. I told my father about that last
night, how he should do that for mom, especially now
that on top of Alzheimer’s she’s had a stroke and so
clapping would be good for both, and he counters with
the fact that he doesn’t think she’s even been much for
music and anyway, the nursing facility she’s hopefully
getting into has all the most up-to-date things like that
they’ll do for her. What do you mean she never had
a favorite song? How could one go one’s whole life
and never have a favorite song? Surely he’s got to be
wrong. So he says, you know, your mother had this trick
toe. Did you know that? I didn’t know that, dad.
And this toe, she could put her foot flat on the ground,
and raise this toe 90 degrees. And now, after the stroke,
she’s able to wiggle her left foot, while raising her right
toe, isn’t that something? And yes, that’s something.

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Making Balloon Animals at Sylvia Plath’s Birthday Party

Because there’s this hope, comedic or remote or poignant, or what,
all three I suppose, thinking back now to imagine ourselves at six, that
we could go back, and maybe balloons would be the thing that changes
everything. And so we try, or I try at least, every now and then. It’s a
skill, it’s not nothing, to make a puppy or flower or sword. And my
daughter, Natalie, 13 now, still is OK with a little crown tiara thing,
because now it’s the return of the uncanny, and she and her friends
can imagine themselves rising from the wreckage of middle school—
though wreckage is too strong a word while you’re still in it—into this
reanimated do over. The Simple Button has been hit. And what do you
order? Can you make a balloon briefcase? A balloon 401K? And we’re
not thinking hard enough. I, like Neil Young in 1978, want to go back
to where there’s nowhere to stay. And what will I do there? Say I come
across Hitler as a child. That’s the psychology 101 thought experiment
I remember from my high school ethics class. So, do you make balloon
animals for him or do you kill him? I mean, he’s Hitler, right? The idea
is that these situations reveal you, that your interactions with others
are your fights with yourself. So there I am, six years old, in the school
bathroom, the Boys Room, for the first time, and I’m going to pee at
the stand-up urinal. I drop my pants all the way down, because I was
taught to pee by my mother, and that’s what she taught me to do. So
now I’m a laughing point. I’m the story of the day, and some older boy
pushes me down into the urinal because he knows he can, now. When
you come across someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing, you
must push him down into a urinal. It’s the code. “What is innate?”
we ask ourselves in ethics class, and we picture ourselves hired to make
balloon animals at Sylvia Plath’s sixth birthday party. So, do we pull
her aside? What do we say to her? Do I tell her we should have
killed Hitler as a child? But we asked ourselves if he was evil then,
or not yet? So we couldn’t kill him. And look at the world now.

 


John Gallaher is author of, most recently In a Landscape, and, with Kristina Marie Darling, Ghost / Landscape.