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12 Rules for Life
Excerpt

A RELIGIOUS PROBLEM
It does not seem reasonable to describe the young man who shot twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 as a religious person. This is equally true for the Colorado theatre gunman and the Columbine High School killers. But these murderous individuals had a problem with reality that existed at a religious depth. As one of the members of the Columbine duo wrote:

"The human race isn’t worth fighting for, only worth killing. Give the Earth back to the animals. They deserve it infinitely more than we do. Nothing means anything anymore."

People who think such things view Being itself as inequitable and harsh to the point of corruption, and human Being, in particular, as con­temptible. They appoint themselves supreme adjudicators of reality and find it wanting. They are the ultimate critics. The deeply cynical writer continues:

"If you recall your history, the Nazis came up with a 'final solution' to the Jewish problem. . . . Kill them all. Well, in case you haven’t figured it out, I say 'KILL MANKIND.' No one should survive."
For such individuals, the world of experience is insufficient and evil—so to hell with everything!

What is happening when someone comes to think in this manner? A great German play, Faust: A Tragedy, written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, addresses that issue. The play’s main character, a scholar named Heinrich Faust, trades his immortal soul to the devil, Mephistopheles. In return, he receives whatever he desires while still alive on Earth. In Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles is the eternal adver­sary of Being. He has a central, defining credo:

"I am the spirit who negates
and rightly so, for all that comes to be
deserves to perish, wretchedly.
It were better nothing would begin!
Thus everything that your terms sin,
destruction, evil represent—
that is my proper element." 

Goethe considered this hateful sentiment so important—so key to the central element of vengeful human destructiveness—that he had Mephistopheles say it a second time, phrased somewhat differently, in Part II of the play, written many years later.

People think often in the Mephistophelean manner, although they seldom act upon their thoughts as brutally as the mass murderers of school, college and theatre. Whenever we experience injustice, real or imagined; whenever we encounter tragedy or fall prey to the machi­nations of others; whenever we experience the horror and pain of our own apparently arbitrary limitations—the temptation to question Being and then to curse it rises foully from the darkness. Why must innocent people suffer so terribly? What kind of bloody, horrible planet is this, anyway?

Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction. Sometimes suffering is clearly the result of a personal fault such as willful blindness, poor decision-making or malevolence. In such cases, when it appears to be self-inflicted, it may even seem just. People get what they deserve, you might contend. That’s cold com­fort, however, even when true. Sometimes, if those who are suffering changed their behaviour, then their lives would unfold less tragically. But human control is limited. Susceptibility to despair, disease, aging and death is universal. In the final analysis, we do not appear to be the architects of our own fragility. Whose fault is it, then?

People who are very ill (or, worse, who have a sick child) will inevi­tably find themselves asking this question, whether they are religious believers or not. The same is true of someone who finds his shirtsleeve caught in the gears of a giant bureaucracy—who is suffering through a tax audit, or fighting an interminable lawsuit or divorce. And it’s not only the obviously suffering who are tormented by the need to blame someone or something for the intolerable state of their Being. At the height of his fame, influence and creative power, for example, the towering Leo Tolstoy himself began to question the value of human existence. He reasoned in this way:

"My position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing in the way of rational knowledge except a denial of life; and in faith I could find nothing except a denial of reason, and this was even more impossible than a denial of life. According to rational knowledge, it followed that life is evil, and people know it. They do not have to live, yet they have lived and they do live, just as I myself had lived, even though I had known for a long time that life is meaningless and evil."

Try as he might, Tolstoy could identify only four means of escaping from such thoughts. One was retreating into childlike ignorance of the problem. Another was pursuing mindless pleasure. The third was "continuing to drag out a life that is evil and meaningless, knowing beforehand that nothing can come of it." He identified that particular form of escape with weakness: "The people in this category know that death is better than life, but they do not have the strength to act ratio­nally and quickly put an end to the delusion by killing themselves. . . ."

Only the fourth and final mode of escape involved "strength and energy. It consists of destroying life, once one has realized that life is evil and meaningless." Tolstoy relentlessly followed his thoughts:

"Only unusually strong and logically consistent people act in this manner. Having realized all the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us and seeing that the blessings of the dead are greater than those of the living and that it is better not to exist, they act and put an end to this stupid joke; and they use any means of doing it: a rope around the neck, water, a knife in the heart, a train."

Tolstoy wasn’t pessimistic enough. The stupidity of the joke being played on us does not merely motivate suicide. It motivates murder—mass murder, often followed by suicide. That is a far more effective existential protest. By June of 2016, unbelievable as it may seem, there had been one thousand mass killings (defined as four or more people shot in a single incident, excluding the shooter) in the US in twelve hundred and sixty days. That’s one such event on five of every six days for more than three years. Everyone says, "We don’t understand." How can we still pretend that? Tolstoy understood, more than a century ago. The ancient authors of the biblical story of Cain and Abel under­stood, as well, more than twenty centuries ago. They described murder as the first act of post-Edenic history: and not just murder, but fratri­cidal murder—murder not only of someone innocent but of someone ideal and good, and murder done consciously to spite the creator of the universe. Today’s killers tell us the same thing, in their own words. Who would dare say that this is not the worm at the core of the apple? But we will not listen, because the truth cuts too close to the bone. Even for a mind as profound as that of the celebrated Russian author, there was no way out. How can the rest of us manage, when a man of Tolstoy’s stature admits defeat? For years, he hid his guns from himself and would not walk with a rope in hand, in case he hanged himself.

How can a person who is awake avoid outrage at the world?

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A Bed of Red Flowers

A Bed of Red Flowers

In Search of My Afghanistan
edition:Paperback
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More Info
Excerpt

Prologue

On one late afternoon in September 1978, our family driver took me to the detention centre in Baghlan, where my father was imprisoned. My purple velvety trousers were brushing the dust from the unpaved road as we walked to the compound. I was holding the driver’s hand, forcing him to go faster. I wanted to see my father. For a child, whose world consisted of family — parents, a younger brother and a baby sister — not seeing my father for three days was a great deal of missing. I was three months short of being five years old.

At the prison, all I could see of my father was his face — striped with the lines from the shadow of the metal bars. He looked desolate. I wanted to hug and kiss him. But he was boxed in a small room. A thick wall, iron bars and several policemen stood between us. I was sitting on the ground, pushing my feet against the soil and crying, my trousers disappearing into a cloud of dry dust and hardly looking purple or velvety any more.

I shall never forget the angry voice of my father. “I didn’t raise you to cry on such a day,” he shouted at me. His words shook the compound. I stopped crying. Holding the driver’s hand, I stood embarrassed, head down, listening to my father. At times his voice grew thicker, as if he himself was going to cry, but he paused and continued. “You mustn’t cry,” he said. “You have to be strong and help your mother.” He told me to tell her that he was fine and that they had no reason to keep him imprisoned. He’d be home soon.

“Your ten minutes is up,” a voice announced coldly. There was a silent goodbye as my father shook his head. I had no tears, and my father faded from view.

I walked back to our car with the driver. There was a revolution inside me. I wanted to be strong, to break all those walls and bars and set my father free. I kept fighting the desperate need to burst into tears. My eyes were burning, much like my father’s. But his were inflamed with anger, mine with helplessness. I wanted to arrive home without tears, even though I knew my mother wouldn’t mind. She had shed many of her own tears in the last few days. I heard her cry at night, quietly in her bed.

That night I hated my mother’s sobbing. I wanted to scream at her “Stop it!” But I felt sorry for her. I knew she was crying from the pain of missing my father, and it was not the only thing. I also heard her talking to a friend in the living room as she described how men were verbally abusing her. She spent her days going to various government offices to see if she could obtain my father’s release. The governor of the city had told her she was “too young and beautiful to waste her life with a criminal” who was against the “rightful government.” A police officer had told her “there were plenty of men who would be happy to please” her. The principal of the school where she was teaching said he was going to report my mother to the “higher authorities” if she missed another day of work to follow up on my father’s case. But if she reciprocated his “keen affection,” she would be nominated that year’s best teacher.

* * *

My mother was not nominated any year’s best teacher, and my father was released after nearly five months in prison. “He had a brave lawyer and lots of luck,” as one of his best friends put it. It took me a while to grasp the gravity of my father’s crime in refusing to support the communist government. The full extent of its meaning did not become clear until later in my life. In some ways, to this day, the child in me still asks “Why?” Why was my father, who in his daughter’s view was a kind man and a good medical doctor, locked up away from us? Children see everything through the injustices they’ve suffered. In the perfect world that every child expects, this episode left a crack in the wall of my innocence.

Chapter 1

Escape

Let’s mourn—
Orders come from abroad, like death itself;
The guns are free,
So are the bullets,
And this year is the year of dying young,
The year of departures,
The year of refugees.
Qahar Ausi, 1989

At dusk, the downtown Kabul district of Dehe Afghanan is cloaked with grey clouds and grey smoke. The early spring rain has left dirt and water across the paved roads. For over a decade now the highways have not been maintained, and the potholes have become deeper, the city’s drainage system more derelict each year. It’s not cold, but we all hug our arms around our bodies as if shivering from fear. We all walk fast, very fast — hoping to get away from everything and everyone. It’s been ten years since the beginning of the war. Who started it? Who will end it? These days, we are so tired that we wish to forget. But is it possible to forget about war when minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day we feel that something bloody and terrible is about to happen?

The curfew starts at 10:00 every night. But there is another unspoken curfew that is imposed not by the communist government but by fear, a curfew that sets in much earlier. Which is why, at this hour, a cocktail of bicycles, motorbikes, pickup trucks, white-and-blue buses, red-and-orange minibuses and yellow taxis, all overcrowded, are merging into a river of traffic. People flood along the main road between the vehicles to reach the two bus stations. Vendors scream their hearts out in a desperate attempt to sell their apples and beans, spinach and meat. Fabrics are measured and cut at speed, four customers at a time. Even the clouds are racing over my head.

From the Hardcover edition.

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A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine)
Excerpt

Let’s Roll

We foresee great peril if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change.
–stephen hawking, physicist and member of the atomic bulletin’s board of sponsors, 2007

I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew ­before . . .
–william james, 1902

Given my druthers, I would prefer not to be afraid of the following: phone bills, ovarian cancer, black bears, climate change, walking on golf courses at night, being blundered into by winged insects; unseemly heights, running out of gas, having the mole on my back that I can feel, but not see, secretly morph into a malignant melanoma. Plus, flying. This is a big problem. Also, on occasion, the prospect that the supervolcano underlying Yosemite National Park will erupt and kill us all. Certainly, in addition, unexpected liver failure. And cows. Also, but only occasionally, when I’m really over the edge with anxiety, the fear that the car I’m driving will simply explode.

It is not that these fears aren’t inherently valid, because maybe they are. One must be vigilant. One must struggle continuously with the validity of one’s fears. Yet they vex me because of what I do not fear: crime, bats, ­house fires, social censure, terrorism, breast cancer, trans fats, and any harm coming to my two small children.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,” wrote Walt Whitman, that great American poet who was phobic of spiders. Apparently, I share this odd proclivity for contradiction with forty million adult Americans in any given year. That is an astonishing number. Nearly 20 percent of the adult inhabitants of the Land of the Brave are as anxious as I am, in one way or another, to a clinically significant degree. Phobic, some of them; others, prone to panic attacks; generalized anxiety, which is my label; somatic hysteria, ­post-­traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive ­disorder–an array of thorny cloaks to wear.

I like to imagine ­them–these forty million kindred ner­vous ­souls–experiencing the same juddering sense of alarm that I felt in January 2006 when I noticed that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Ser­vices had issued a bulletin about pandemic influenza. The warning went out via a newly dedicated Web site, pandemicflu.gov, advising the citizenry in all states to stockpile six to eight weeks’ worth of food and water . . . like, nowish.

“But why?” I wondered, with detectable palpitations of the heart. “What’s about to happen?” A Google search suggested terrible things. Vast amounts of suffering and death. Rasping, ­blue-­in-­the-­face plague along the lines of the Great Influenza of 1918. A brand new pandemic that would kill pretty much everyone in the prime of their lives more or less shortly (it ­wasn’t precisely clear when). In the winter of 2006, the virus was still busy trying to figure out how to mutate in order to infect humans more swiftly than birds, but then . . . well. That’s it. You understand? Calamity.

Therefore, proclaimed pandemicflu.gov, which I had stumbled across from a random link on the Drudge Report, you really, really need to stock cans of tuna and Evian water in the basement, because at the appointed time, the clerk at the 7-­Eleven will drop dead and no one will sell you your food.

How do I, and forty million Americans, put this? When you suffer from anxiety, which has been very aptly described as fear in search of a cause, you do not need official encouragement. Go away with your stockpile advisory, because ­here is what it is going to make me do:

“Patricia?” ventured my husband about a month later, having signed for a postal delivery at our door. “Are you all right?”

“Why?” I called down distractedly from my ­third-­floor home office.

“Well,” he said, coming upstairs, his ­even-­tempered voice growing louder with each step, “last week a box with twelve containers of ­freeze-­dried vegetables arrived at the ­house from a company called Survival Acres, and I meant to ask you about it, you know, but I forgot, and now you seem to have purchased a really big tin of powdered butter.”

He darkened the threshold of my office, displaying the newly delivered package. “It says you need to add ­twenty-­seven cups of water.” My dear husband eyed me thoughtfully, poised somewhere between bursting out laughing and giving me a hug.

It is always thus. I catch him off guard. Ask anyone who suffers from what John Keats called “wakeful anguish,” and they will assure you that their affliction isn’t visible to the naked eye. The chronically anxious aren’t physically timid, or cringing. We don’t quake in our boots or whimper aloud as we board airplanes. In folklore and anecdote, the anxious have been conflated with the immature and emotionally uninhibited as “ner­vous Nellies,” but the perception is a prejudice. Our fears are private, arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and very often masked. Anxiety rages undetected in the mind, both secretive and wild.

Friends and acquaintances, children, even lovers can be fooled. Who knew that Charles Darwin was struggling to suppress a rising sense of panic in his later years? Who glimpsed the dread felt by Alfred Lord Tennyson, or by W. B. Yeats? Is a ­face-­clutching terror evident in the bold joy of Aretha Franklin as she sings, or in the elegant play of David Beckham? Yet both contend all the time with a fraught sense of balancing on the cliff’s edge. I know of one CEO who gets paralyzed with terror whenever he enters a tunnel, but I doubt his business associates have noticed this when they’ve driven together in a limo from LaGuardia beneath the East River and into Manhattan. Another accomplished professional of my acquaintance spends her downtime silently making contingency plans for the tornado she’s certain will hit her ­house in Montreal. One friend is a gregarious charmer, a man who soars at his job in Chicago, all the while governed by his phobia that something will snap off his toes.

You ­can’t claim to spot an anxious person a mile away. The signals aren’t that strong. Anxious people don’t even recognize one another. Apprehension runs through us like an underground current; it electrifies when no one is watching.

By March 2006, the government of New Zealand had embarked upon a ­house-­by-­house mailing to all of its nationals, asking them to think seriously about an imminent outbreak of death and pestilence. I knew this because, rather than contend with the financial issues that ­were actually causing my anxiety, I had become a daily visitor to a Web site called Flu Wiki. ­Here could be found a great milling together of fiercely articulate and ­freaked-­out people from around the world, posting to discussion topics like “What Will We Do with the Bodies?” It was like an informal or unacknowledged meeting space for Neurotics Anonymous. The conversations ranged widely, from scientific discourses on virus mutation to historic analysis of pandemics, to tips for home fuel ­storage–on the presumption that ­self-­quarantine would be the only effective protection from contracting the virus.

“I’ve washed my hands so much this week they’re bleeding,” a Texan mother of seven posted to the Flu Wiki one eve­ning. She was ­self-­reliant and in control. She had already bought birthday and Christmas presents for her youngsters so that they would enjoy all their rituals while in quarantine. She had thought of every possibility. For anxiety is engaged in endless subsets of “what if?” and “if then.” The essence of the condition is an intolerance of uncertainty. A need, as the psychologist Maria Miceli has said, “for absolute predictive control.” The mother from Texas was a frequent poster to the site, and seemed to function as a maternal figure for the others. She confessed to being exhausted. I might have suggested that she had a touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, what with washing her hands until they bled, but any post that implied that the community was ­disordered–and such posts appeared now and ­then–was swiftly batted away by a chorus of boos.

I read “Cooking with Canned Goods Only” with interest, feeling a certain nostalgia for pioneer days as depicted in Little ­House on the Prairie, when fears ­were succinct and clear and Pa had a gun. But I didn’t warm to the more jangly ­post-­apocalyptic topic “How to Prevent Home Invasions,” which was based on the notion that people who had failed to prepare for the pandemic would begin searching desperately and aggressively for food. All 262 suggestions on this classic American thread ­were inventive in an earnest, homemade kind of way, as if Martha Stewart had developed a psychosis and put out a special issue of her magazine: crafts and cupcakes for The Followed. “Roll up towels ­etc. and tie them all up in plastic bags to look like the shape of a dead body and put skunk oil on it,” one poster suggested. “Maybe lay the ‘dead body’ on pavement, or somewhere, so that the ‘blood’ that seems to be seeping from it is noticed.”

Lest anyone on Flu Wiki begin to wonder if we ­were paying “selective attention to threat,” as researchers say those of us with anxiety are prone to do, one could always find a supportive quotation from bird flu experts. According to the epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, for example, if the pandemic hit that winter, “I don’t know what we could do about it except say, ‘We’re screwed.’”

Of course. But ­we’re screwed anyway. As I write this in the winter of 2007, scientists in London have just moved the hand on their Doomsday Clock one minute closer to midnight in order to symbolize the approach of civilization’s end. I’m not sure what they want me to do in response to this dramatic ceremonial gesture, other than sigh deeply and lie down. Cover myself with crumbled autumnal leaves, ­perhaps, as I once witnessed an injured squirrel do in my backyard on a ­bone-­damp November morning, remarkably effacing itself.

At least, in prepping for a flu pandemic, I can store tins of butter and plot my family’s flight from an urban center. What exactly am I supposed to do about “civilization’s end”? The scientists who operate the Doomsday Clock are practicing a ­self-­defeating rhetoric that actually appeals more to the depressed than to the anxious. Anxiety distinguishes itself from depression by expressing a grim and slender hope that one will manage to prevail. The depressed drop their briefcases, sink to their knees, and say “fuck it.” The anxious pick and choose between the many vague, ­world-­ending scenarios offered to them these days and seek out the ones they can plan around. To respond to the Doomsday Clock requires tracking down shadowy figures in international arms dealing in remote corners of central Asia and somehow preventing them from selling nuclear weapons or ­else the world will end; the threat of bird flu calls for a ­whole bunch of shopping at Target.

There are several ways to cope with dread, but I specialize in what psychologist Maria Miceli calls “hypothetical analytical planning.” This is where you lie in bed at night and run through as many prospective scenarios as you can imagine and then rehearse them in French, or from the vantage point of a cat. “One’s power over events is closely dependent on one’s power to foresee,” Miceli notes, “because if I cannot foresee, I cannot act.” In order to be able to take the preventive actions required, I have to proceed in the laborious and demanding task of formulating the various hypotheses about the possible courses that events could take. And since those courses are pretty much infinite, the anxiety is never solved and simply deepens, like grooves being laid down in vinyl.

What if I ­can’t fit
The powdered butter and dehydrated dinners
Into my Mazda? Along with the dogs and children?
Will we stay ­here? In the basement?
If the dogs need to go out, how will they come back in
Without bringing the virus into the home on their feet?
They might
Step in avian feces.
Shall I purchase booties?

In these times we speak a great deal about fear: the politics of fear, the culture of fear, the “gift” of fear, the fear of fear. But fear and anxiety are vitally different experiences, and it is actually anxiety that characterizes our age. Fear is invoked by immediate threat, and galvanizes a response. A bear chases you: you run away. A car hurtles out of control: you leap off the road. Terrorists hijack your flight and aim it at Washington: you say, “Let’s roll.”

“Fear sharpens the senses,” observed the German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein, “anxiety paralyzes them.”

We perceive these two responses as if they marked a difference in character, but it’s really a difference in plight. It isn’t that there are some people prone to paralytic anxiety and others prone to clarifying courage. On the contrary. Recent MRI research has demonstrated that the same people who suffer from anxiety disorders have a totally normal ­response–in how the part of the brain known as the amygdala lights up when ­cued–to real danger. In other words, on United 93, the neurotics would have been right up there with everyone ­else in responding briskly and bravely to the clear and present threat.

The signature vexation of anxiety is that it is objectless. It washes over one in formless waves, pulls one under until the pressure and constriction are tangible and panic rears: I’m in deep, I’m going to drown. What is so incredibly harrowing, as the psychoanalyst Karen Horney once noted, is “the feeling of diffuseness and uncertainty, and the experience of helplessness toward the threat.”

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A Darkness Absolute

A Darkness Absolute

A Rockton Thriller (City of the Lost 2)
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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A Wall of Light
Excerpt

Sonya
I am SonyaVronsky, professor of mathematics atTel Aviv University, and this is the story of a day in late August. On this remarkable day I kissed a student, pursued a lover, found my father, and left my brother.

The morning began with a series of sneezes. The sneezes interrupted a dream I was having about a glass-walled elevator that had left its shaft and was shooting about wildly through immense futuristic building complexes. Like something out of Asimov, I thought. I was just starting to enjoy both the sensation and the spectacle when the sneezes woke me.

I like to sleep with the shutters open; I like to feel the sun on my body as soon as I wake. A warm, luminous world awaits me – or so I imagine. Ordinarily, I would have switched off the air-conditioning, opened the window and looked out at our garden; I would have turned my face toward the sky and breathed in the sweet, tyrannous August air. But today my sneezing distracted me. My late-summer allergies were kicking in.

I sat up in my queen-sized bed and reached for the box of rainbow-colored tissues on the night table. I set the box between my knees, which were protruding like two islands from under the sheets. A boxy ship, precariously balanced.

My mother, who slept next to me when I was little, always accompanied her good-night kiss with a quote–affectionate if she was sober (“Come, live with me, and be my love,” for example), gloomier if she was inebriated (“Out, out, brief candle!”).Then she’d turn off the light and I’d snuggle up against her lace nightgown, breathe in her cinnamon perfume. My mother was a night bird; when she woke she was not in a quoting mood. But I am the opposite, more inclined toward poetry in the morning than at bedtime, and I suppose my choices are also somewhat less formal than hers. “You are old, Father William . . . ,” I began, but didn’t finish; a sneeze interrupted me.

Kostya, my darling brother, appeared in the doorway, dark and shadowy because the light was behind him. With his trimmed gray beard and his tall, still body he looked like a character in a French film from the 1960s, a film about alienation and ennui, with the male lead dark and brooding. In fact, he was there to offer me an antihistamine. My brother has very low tolerance for disruption, and the sneezes were annoying him.

But I’m being unfair: he was also trying to help. My poor brother lives with the guilt of my two catastrophes, neither of which he had anything to do with. Human error lay behind the first disaster: twenty years ago, when I was twelve, I was taken to the hospital with a kidney infection, and some nurse or doctor or hospital pharmacist gave me the wrong dose of the wrong drug. I moved into another dimension, spooky at first, frightening at first, then surreal, and finally exotic or ridiculous, depending on the day. I lost my hearing.

And human evil, which no one can entirely avoid, accounts for the artillery unleashed at me in an empty university classroom by stoned twin teenagers with shaven heads and dragon tattoos.

But guilt has a way of insinuating itself into the path of any series of events leading to a given outcome. Kostya believes, for example, that had he fixed our broken toilet, I would not have come down with a kidney infection in the first place. The toilet howled and groaned like a ghoul in chains and I was afraid to use it; my solution was to drink less in order to limit my visits to the bathroom. I didn’t tell anyone about my aversion; had Kostya known, he would have attended to the problem. And then, had I not been deaf I might have heard the twins before seeing them (this is really stretching it) and escaped in time. These are tenuous links but well entrenched in our family mythology.

“Do you want an allergy pill?” my brother asked, speaking as he signed. “It’s non-soporific.” We’d developed so many signing shortcuts and private gestures over the years that by now we almost had our own language.

“Oh ...kay!” I managed to say between sneezes. He vanished and returned with a small yellow pill, his heartbreaking offering of the morning, nestled in the palm of his large, intelligent hand. In his other hand he held a small bottle of Eden spring water.

I obediently swallowed the pill. “You’re lucky I’m so nice to you,” I said.

My brother smiled. It would be no exaggeration to say that he suffers from my misfortunes more than I ever did. He should take comfort in the fact that I have a good life, that I have fun–and maybe he does, to some degree. Maybe not. It’s hard to know for sure.

“Tell me when you’re ready for breakfast,” he said.

I blew him a kiss and he left the room. My briefcase was next to the night table, and I emptied its contents in front of me. Exams, articles, receipts, notes and miscellaneous slips of paper floated out angelically and settled on the bed. I organized them all efficiently and quickly.Then I waddled to the bathroom like a goose headed for its mud pond, and had a shower. There is nothing quite as wonderful and endlessly surprising as a soft, heavy stream of hot water falling on one’s shoulders and down one’s body. I was filled with gratitude, as I always am during the first few moments of a shower, that something so lovely exists on this planet, and I was only sorry that it was not available to everyone. A few kilometers away, there was not even enough drinking water.

But, inexcusably, my sense of guilt soon faded, and as I ran the soapy sea sponge along my legs I succumbed completely to the pleasures of my morning shower.

From the Hardcover edition.

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