Don Bigote: Chapter 5

Don Bigote: Chapter 5

The story until now:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs

Don and Dan Find God

“Dan, I am afraid I cannot hold it any longer.”

“You sure, sir? There must be a McDonald’s nearby.”

“My dear boy, first of all, McDonald’s is one of the strongest links in the chain of conspiracy, extending all the way from AppleBee’s to Outback Steakhouse. They put mind-control serums in the food, making the populace more docile. And second, I am in a state of dire urethral and bladereal emergency.”

“But where does Taco Bell figure into this?”

“Just stop, Chopin!”

I pull the grey sedan to the side of the road; the tires crunch on the gravel as we slow down. Bigote has the door open before we even come to a full stop. He unbuckles his seatbelt and attempts a flying leap out of the car—a man propelled by the force of nature—and immediately tumbles and falls, hitting his face on the open door, and then rolling into a somersault and springing to his feet. His nose is bleeding profusely and a steady stream of urine, surprisingly vigorous for an old guy like him, appears in no time. I observe all this through the rear-view mirror.

“I told you about drinking all that Diet Pepsi, sir,” I say, after getting out. “It’s a killer.”

“I would appreciate if you could maintain silence while I am in this undignified state,” he replies, the stream still going strong.

“Well I guess I’ll go, too.”

I unzip my fly and search deep down for the urine I know is lurking in the depths. I push and squeeze, and feel a tension somewhere behind my navel, and scrunch it like a sponge, trying to get all the liquid out. I am a little embarrassed of my pitiful tinkle, compared to Bigote’s mighty Niagara.

We both finish.

“Are you okay, sir?” I say, looking at the read streak of blood down his shirt and face, left by his still-bleeding nose.

“Nothing to worry about, Chopin. Blood is but the stuff of the gross material body. The soul is made of finer matter, and cannot escape through the aperture of the nose.”

“Well why don’t you plug it up anyway,” I say, and hand him the tissue stuffed in my pocket.

“Once again, I am much obliged to you,” he says, and stuffs bits of the tissue up his nose.

“So, Mr. Bigote, sir,” I say, “I hate to bring this up again, but where are we headed?”

“My most ignorant and naïve companion, for the upteenth time, we are on our way to Santiago de Compostela.”

“Which is a city?”

“It is the city where the body of St. James was discovered, making it one of Christendom’s great pilgrimage sites.”

“And what’s that to us?”

“You know, your barbarous mode of speech, and persistently philistine questions, do provoke in me great feelings of pity and, at times, rage at the conspiracy which has so debauched your mind, my most benighted squire.”

Bigote has been getting a little testy lately.

“Debitched or not, I’ve been driving for a long time, man, and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.”

“Stuff and nonsense, Chopin. It is impossible to go and yet remain, as Isaac Newton proved.”

“Listen I don’t see what physics has to do with San Diego con Carne.”

“Santiago de Compostela.”

“Yeah.”

“Allow me to explain this in plain terms. St. James is the patron saint of Spain. He was a great inspiration for the reconquista and, it is said, actually appeared in battle to aide the Christian forces against the invading Muslims. As such, visiting the shrine dedicated to Santiago may have much to tell us in our quest against the Mexican-Muslim conspiracy.”

“Well, as long as I can get BJ’s and beers there, it should be fine.”

“I assure you, Chopin, they have every civilized amenity, including pyjamas.”

I walk back over to the driver’s side and tug on the door.

“Uh oh,” I say. “It’s locked. Try your side, sir.”

“It does not open, from which I deduce that it is locked.”

“Yeah…” I say, patting myself down, looking through my pockets. “Pretty sure I left the keys in the car.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“We’re locked out.”

“You imbecile!” Bigote said, pounding his fist on the car. “You dunce!”

He is an awfully judgmental guy for someone covered in dried blood, with red tissue coming out of his nostrils.

“Sorry about that, sir,” I say, trying my best to sound real sorry.

“Do you realize the extent to which you have put our entire operation in jeopardy by such a careless and routine oversight?”

“Well, can’t be that bad.”

“I beg to differ, knave, and to differ most hotly. For tow truck personnel are inevitably informants of the conspiracy. Indeed, nearly every individual involved in traffic violations or car repair is directly connected to the central database, which the conspirators use to track the whereabouts of their nemeses. They will find us out immediately, Chopin.”

“Guess we just got to break a window then,” I said.

“I suppose we do, Chopin. Would you like me to try?”

“Be my guest.”

I am pretty excited for what is coming next.

Bigote winds up his body like a spring, and delivers a massive karate chop to the passenger window. His boney hand bounces off with a loud ‘crack.’

AAAAAHHH!” Bigote says, clutching his hand.

“Oh shit, sir, did you break anything?” I try to say this with a straight face.

“It is too early to tell the extent of the physical damage, Chopin. But it is safe to say that this glass is especially made to withstand assault. Try it with a hefty stone.”

“You got it,” I say, and pick up a loose piece of asphalt nearby. Then I chuck it right at the window from point-blank range. But my hand slips and the asphalt hits the door right below the window, bounces off and hits me in the nuts, sending me to the floor.

My world collapses like an accordion into a tight ball of breathless pain. All time and space disappear. I see the face of God, and He looks like my mom. I smell oil and stale beer and imagine that this is what everything must smell like when you’re dead. Then, I snap out of it a little, and find myself sprawled on the ground clutching my crotch.

“Owowowowow,” I say, when I can find my breath. “God damnit.”

“Chopin, are you alright?”

“Just dying over here, don’t worry about it.”

“These damn feminist, homosexual, gluten-free conspirators! You see, Chopin, they have infiltrated all the regulation agencies. In the past, automobile companies could use whatever grade of glass they pleased. In those days you could shatter a car window with a pebble. But in their mad quest to limit our blessed freedom, the socialists created regulations, stating that these windows must be resistant to kinetic assault. And now you see how clever they are? We are locked out of our own vehicle!”

“Well, technically we stole it,” I say. I have stopped hyperventilating now and I am struggling back to my feet.

“Hello, friends, do you need some help?”

My blood runs cold when I hear this voice. Who the hell is that?

“Why, who might you be?” Bigote says, all suspicious-like. I limp over to his side as quick as I can, hoping to prevent Bigote from shooting anyone. Remember, we still have those pistols from the dead drug runners.

“My name is Pierre,” a boy with a funny French accent says. “I see that you are having trouble with your automobile.”

He’s about my age, wearing a black backpack, a grey hoodie, some ragged jeans, and he’s holding a walking stick. He smiles and I can see that he has spotted yellow teeth.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, trying to sound menacing.

“I was walking along when I saw you two pull over to, uh, make water. I saw you had a bad accident,” he says to Bigote. “Are you alright?”

“I am an old warrior and am long immured to such trifling injuries, but it is very kind of you to ask.” I can tell from Bigote’s tone that he is contemplating something very stupid.

“Well, I see that you cannot get back into your car,” Pierre says.

“Very observant.”

“Would not you like me to help? I am an expert in these things, you know.”

“In breaking into cars?”

“Precisely.”

I look at Bigote, who eyes the Frenchie with a narrow gaze.

“Be my guest,” he says finally, after a long pause.

“But in return,” Pierre says, “I would very much like it if you would give me a ride.”

“If it is on our way,” Bigote says.

“Oh, it is on everybody’s way.”

And with this puzzling remark, Pierre whips his backpack around, and pulls out a coat hanger from the front pocket. Then he straightens it out into a little wire, leaving only the hooked end, and presses it against the little crease of the passenger door, and then wiggles it back and forth until, with a little jerk, it pops into the car. He angles the hanger so that it hooks the little doorlock knob, and gently pulls it out and up, unlocking the door. All this is done in less than thirty seconds.

“There you are!” he says, turning around and smiling.

“Very kind of you,” Bigote says, and whips out the semi-automatic pistol from his belt. But the gun flies out of his hand, dropping down on the asphalt road with a thud, going off in the process with a horrible Bang! Before I even have time to react Bigote swoops down and picks up the gun in his left hand.

“Jesus Christ, Fuck!” I say. “What the fuck was that, man?”

“Are you hit, Chopin?”

“No, man, but why did you throw the gun like that? Are you nuts?”

“It’s my right hand, Chopin. I cannot grip anything. I think I broke my fingers from trying to smash the window.”

“Oh, great. Well did you kill Jacques?”

“It’s Pierre…” he says. He threw himself on the ground when he saw the gun, and is now getting back to his feet. “And I am unharmed.”

“Get back on your feet you conspiratorial scum, and die like a man,” Bigote says. “Now, say your prayers—to Muhammad, Hillary Clinton, El Chapo, or whatever other devils you dogs pray to.”

“What is this?” Pierre says, standing and throwing his hands up. “Why are you doing this?”

“Oh, an obliging French vagrant just happened to be strolling by when our car broke down? Very convenient,” Bigote says.

“Woah, woah, woah, woah,” I say, putting a hand gently on Bigote’s arm. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, sir.”

“Chopin, I admire your impulse towards mercy, but we have everything to lose and little to gain by letting this man live. He may be innocent, but he may very well be an agent sent here for the very purpose of sabotaging us, ensnaring us in his cleverly-woven net.”

“But sir, there must be a way to tell if somebody is a genuine member of the conspiracy.”

“Well, do you have some aluminum foil and a cup of water?”

“No…”

“Then we must resort to circumstantial evidence. Search his backpack, Chopin.”

“Yes, sir. Hand it here, Jacques.”

“It’s Pierre…”

“Shut up, Napoleon.”

Pierre nervously hands the bag over, and then sticks his hands back in the air. I open up the outside pocket.

“Cigarettes, a map of Portugal, five loose condoms, insect repellent, a harmonica, and a pickle.”

“Hmmmm,” Bigote says. “Go on.”

I open the main chamber.

“A bottle of Jack Daniels, a little tin can filled with weed…”

“Weed?”

“Marijuana, sir.”

“I see. Proceed.”

“Seven purple radishes, some sliced jalapeños, a partially eaten bag of cheetos, a frying pan, a package of bacon, a compass, three packs of cigarettes, a fork and knife, a flashlight, a plastic bag full of mushrooms, and a… a pornographic magazine.”

“And his pockets?”

Pierre scrounges in his pockets and gives me two big handfuls.

“Some gum, lots of coins, guitar picks, toothpicks, a wallet.”

“Any I.D.?” Bigote barks

“Yes, it’s in French but it says Pierre Lacrosse.”

“Go on.”

“An entire head of garlic, some packets of salt and ketchup from McDonald’s, a few batteries, and some little blue pills, which I believe are ecstasy.”

“That is correct,” Pierre says.

“I see,” Bigote says. “Well, I think the evidence is strongly in favor of his innocence.” Bigote clicks the safety on and holsters the pistol.

“Oh, mon dieu,” Pierre says.

“How did you come to that conclusion, sir?”

“Elementary, my dear Chopin. He had a harmonica, and music is forbidden in Islam; he had bacon, a pork product; and he had alcohol, another violation of the tenets of that nefarious creed.”

“Couldn’t he have been fooling us?” I say, just to figure out how this guy’s mind works.

“He may, indeed, Chopin. I see you are learning their trickery. But the presence of a pornographic magazine cleared up any doubts. For the human body is veiled in Islam; and, besides, feminists cannot abide pornography, since it shows attractive women; and, on top of that, the gays condemn all heterosexual attraction as too ‘natural’; and, finally, vegans consider sex to be an act of animal consumption. So it is very unlikely that the conspiracy would use pornography, even for the purposes of trickery.”

“But I thought all those guys were in favor of porn, right? Like, isn’t it the rightwing people who don’t like porn?”

“Ah, now you see the brilliance of the conspiracy, Chopin. The conspiracy publicly supports porn for its degrading moral effect, but refuses to partake of it themselves. They are dastardly, and will not hesitate to bend their morality to suit their needs.”

“Boy, you sure are smart, sir,” I say. “Excuse my boss,” I then say to Pierre, in a whisper. “He’s just a little paranoid about terrorism.”

“I understand,” he says. “One can never be too careful. So, can I get that ride?”

“Of course!” Bigote says, “and please excuse me for being such an ungrateful host.” And we all pile into the car.

“So, uh, do you know where you’re going?” I say to Pierre.

“Yes, it is only a few kilometers up this road. I will tell you when to stop.”

We drive on without conversation for fifteen minutes or so. I can see Bigote out of the corner of my eye. He is twisting his head this way and that, scanning the surroundings like an alert bird. His mustache has—if this is even possible—grown still more bushy during our time on the run, and now seems to extend outward in all directions like a bramble. Pierre, meanwhile, sits in the back, whistling “Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye. Seems like a chill dude.

“Stop! Stop! Here it is!” Pierre says suddenly.

“You sure, man?” I say.

“Yes, yes!”

I pull over to the side and we slow to a stop. I look around and see nothing, not a building, a sign, nor a driveway.

“Where are you even going?” I ask him.

“Into the forest.”

“Are you on a hiking trip?”

“Oh, no, I’m going to an ayahuasca ceremony.”

“Ayahuasca?” Bigote asks.

“Oh, sir, I think this is a wonderful opportunity!” I say, thinking fast. “Ayahuasca is a powerful tool that may help us in our fight against the conspiracy!”

I’ve always wanted to try it.

“Indeed?” Bigote says, stroking his stache.

“Oh yes,” Pierre says. “Ayahuasca can change the world.”

“Then let us go!”

§

“Tell me again what this ‘ayahuasca’ substance is, Chopin. I am having difficulty following your explanation.”

We are stumbling through the forest on a vaguely marked trail, following the Frenchie at a distance of a few dozen feet. He seems to know where he’s going. I am a little worried that he’s leading us into a trap or something; but both of us are packing pistols—not that I know how to shoot mine—so I am not too worried. At the very least I am taking this baguette-eating euro-hippie down with me.

“Well, sir,” I say to Bigote, trying to sound all knowledgeable-like, “the thing is, nobody really knows what ayahuasca is. The recipe was discovered by the Aztecs, but the secret was lost after all of them died, from rape and pillage and stuff like that. But it’s like this substance that lets you see reality with, like, super vision. I mean that you know all this stuff you didn’t know before. Like magic.”

“If I am following your explanation correctly, Chopin, this is a potent substance developed by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Mexico?”

“That’s it.”

“And they used it in their rituals in order to gain a higher experience of reality?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“And somehow this recipe has been recovered?”

“You see, some people escaped into the forest and kept making the stuff, even after most of their friends and family died from the rape and pillage, and nowadays people pay to be part of ceremonies where they drink some of it and go through the whole deal.”

Bigote stops dead in his tracks.

“This is brilliant, Chopin!” Bigote says, throwing his hands up in the air. “Brilliant! This is the missing piece of the puzzle!”

“The puzzle, sir?”

“Don’t you see, Chopin? This is how the Muslims and the Mexicans communicated back in the time before Columbus crossed the ocean, allowing them to coordinate their nefarious plans before Western civilization even got started off the ground.”

“Hold up a second, sir. Are you saying that the Mexicans and the Muslims were plotting all the way back then? That’s just crazy, dude.”

“It may seem insane, Chopin, but I assure you this conspiracy reaches back into the furthest depths of time. Now, admittedly it was mysterious how the Aztecs and the Muslims coordinated in the Dark Ages. But what you tell me is true, Chopin, and this drug does give you a different experience of reality, it is possible that Mexicans and Muslims could attune their minds by taking the drug simultaneously, on different parts of the globe, and thus coordinate their thoughts. Or perhaps the Muslims smoked hashish… ”

“Woah, dude.”

“Yes, it is a bone-chilling thought. Nevertheless, we must suppose some sort of supernatural mode of communication in order to explain the otherwise extraordinary extent of coordination between these two apparently separated cultures. But is it really so surprising? Can it really have been a coincidence that the Aztec and the Muslim empires thrived at the same moment in history? Can it be pure chance that they both subsided in power—or, to be more accurate, appeared to subside in power—as the star of Europe was rising? No, all of this is too much to be believed. What is more, can anyone honestly believe the stories of these Spanish conquistadores easily conquering whole empires with a handful of men? It’s preposterous! The whole thing has been planned from the beginning, Chopin, and in the utmost detail. Both cultures agreed to feign a decline and fall, allowing the Europeans to think that they were the dominant force, all the while plotting how to take over and destroy Western culture, while harvesting its fruits for themselves.”

I sort of spaced out halfway through this, since even for Bigote this was a big conspiratorial wad to blow. And in any case I quickly learned that if you just say “Wow!” at appropriate intervals, he is totally satisfied… I guess a lot of married-couple sex works in the same way. This is why I never want to get tied down to one girl. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t some nice, smart, attractive girls in the world. But for a whole life? Give me a break. Like, variety is the spice of life, baby. Same with friends—with family, too, now that I think about it. Got to change things up every now and then or it all gets so stale and boring, amiright? I love hot dogs, but I don’t want to eat nothing but hot dogs forever and for all time. Same thing with everything and everyone else.

I’ll hand it to Bigote, though. He drones on like nobody else, but he still manages to surprise me pretty often. He’s a special dude.

“We’re here!” Pierre says, as he holds the branches of a little bush open, as if parting the curtains. “Isn’t it lovely?”

Bigote and I catch up and peer through the brush. The ‘retreat’ isn’t a whole lot to look at. There are five smallish cabins, made of wood, all arranged around what looks like a fire pit. Some logs are on the ground, for benches I guess, and empty beer bottles and plastic bags and other trash is spread around. Looks a lot like where went to after prom, some dank place called Stone Beach, though this is a lot cleaner. Might be fun.

“Where are all the inhabitants?” Bigote says.

“Oh, they must be off on a meditation walk in the forest. Let’s go find a spot.”

We follow Pierre into one of the cabins. It’s dark inside—no lights, no lamps, and just a little window on the far end. It seems like Pierre’s been here before, since he reaches for a flashlight hanging on the wall. As he illuminates the cabin I see about five or six double-decker bunk beds. A few of them are covered in stuff—old clothes hanging off the railings, backpacks, socks and underwear and things everywhere, with some empty wine bottles and beer cans lying around.

“You guys can stay here,” Pierre says, gesturing to an empty bunk bed.

“We are much obliged,” Bigote says.

“Do you want to be on top or on bottom?” I say to Bigote.

“As a seeker of wisdom I always prefer to have the higher vantage point, from which I can take in my surroundings.”

“Ah, ok…”

“You sound upset, my good assistant.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine. It’s just I usually like the top.”

“An admirable impulse, Chopin, but I am afraid that your subordinate position dooms you to an inferior level of the bed.”

“But are you really the boss if you haven’t paid me yet?”

“Everything in good time, my good assistant. Have no fear, your money will come. Yet we have more pressing matters to attend to than mere fiduciary concerns. For example, my hand requires some medical attention.”

“Allow me,” Pierre says, and comes over and shines his flashlight on Bigote’s outstretched hand. It’s real ugly: His fingers are all bent and crooked and his hand is as red and swollen as a tomato.

“You really messed yourself up, man,” I say.

“Yes, I appear to have done so,” Bigote replies. “It is well that my hand has gone numb, or else the pain would be very intense. I believe I am in shock.”

“If you allow me,” Pierre says, “I can help with this.”

“What, you’re both a doctor and a car thief?” I say.

“I have some practice with both,” Pierre says. “Will you follow me?” He leads us outside and then to another cabin, where Pierre quickly locates a first-aid kit. “Wait here,” he says, goes away, and comes right back holding some little popsicle sticks.

“Let us go outside into the light so I can help you.”

We sit down on some logs that are serving as benches outside a big fire pit, full of black ashes. Pierre gets down to work, using the kindling boards as splints, one for each finger, and then wrapping the whole thing in gauze. It looks like he’s done this kind of thing before, not that I’d really know.

“So,” Bigote says, as Pierre is working. “Tell me about yourself Pierre. What brings a young Frenchman into these parts?”

“Ah, this is a long story, monsieur.”

“I do not think we are pressed for time.”

“Ok, I will tell you, since you very kindly did not kill me before.

“I am from a little town near Bordeaux, out in the countryside. I grew up on a farm along with three sisters. My mother died when we were very young, so we only had our father to take care of us. It was a simple life, a hard life. I had to wake up before dawn every morning to milk the cows. And that was not all. Since I was the only boy, he had me do everything—sowing, planting, harvesting, and all of this agricultural business. For a long time I did this and I was content.”

“The farming life is one of the most honorable and necessary professions,” Bigote says, and then winces as Pierre tightens a bandage.

“It is, for those who are made for it. But my mother was not from a farming family. She taught my eldest sister, Claudine, to read when she was young, and then Claudine taught the rest of us. Father never gave us money for books, never had any to give. But mother had left her little library in a cupboard. Father never touched them, and he told us we should not waste our time, but gradually I grew interested. I would read at night, before bed, though normally I was so tired I fell asleep after five minutes.”

“This is an inspiring story of autodidacticism! Literature can truly open our minds to new worlds!” Bigote was red in the face from pain now.

“You are right. This is what happened. I started reading a book called The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and it changed everything. It opened my eyes. I realized that I was living a shallow life of conformity, working for distant capitalist masters, and that I wanted to experience new things, to really live my life for myself.”

“So what did you do?” I say.

“Well, the first thing I did was I tried to find plants I could smoke on our farm. I used my Father’s old wooden pipe and tried many different species. The corn did not work. The bean sprouts could not catch on fire. The hay burned but did nothing. Finally I found a weed growing next to the house that made me see naked women whenever I closed my eyes, and I heard voices of cats and coyotes if I cupped my ears. Naturally I began smoking it very often. But my Father caught me. He said, ‘What are you doing, Pierre, my son? This is bad for your health. Please stop.’ But I told him, no, that I was expanding my consciousness.

“He left me alone for a while after that, hoping I would stop. But I had no intention of stopping. I found another plant that, when you smoke it, you feel 100 feet tall and your mouth tastes like bee stings. I started smoking that, and soon I had given up on all that dreadful farm work. But my Father, he is very narrow-minded, very much of the old world. So he took his pipe when I was passed out in the barn, and hid it from me. I guessed it was him immediately, so when I woke up I went to him, and said, ‘Hey, old man. Give me my pipe. I’m expanding my consciousness.’

“He said, ‘My son. Look at yourself. You are becoming an addict. Why are you doing this? I love you, son, and I want life to be like the old days.’ But I just laughed at this old-fashioned nonsense, and said, ‘Dad, enough of this trash. Give me the pipe.’ But he refused. So I decided to do something really daring, really crazy, really beyond the norm, and I pushed him. I pushed him right down the stairs and he broke his hip. My sisters began screaming, cursing at me. That’s when I knew they were too conventional for me. They took the old man to the hospital, and while they were gone I packed up and left.”

“Woaaah, dude,” I say.

“Well,” Bigote says, hesitating, “I suppose your father could have been a member of the conspiracy…”

“I do not know about that,” Pierre says, “but I have been living on the road ever since, expanding my consciousness beyond all the bounds of convention. That is why I am here.”

I consider whispering to Bigote that we should skedaddle, but just then a tremendous racket pierces through the dusk. We all look over.

Coming through the forest is a parade of people—shrieking, wailing, bawling, laughing, yodeling, and in general making a big racket. There must be around 20-25. Most of them are relatively young. They are all half dressed. Even the women are topless; but I can’t say I’m really interested, partially from the fear, but also because they all have this kind of wild hippie look to them. You know, knotty hair and dirty skin. They aren’t the bathing type is what I mean. At their head is this middle-aged guy with a kind of feather headdress on, blowing a horn.

“Didn’t you say they were meditating?” I say to Pierre.

“Yes, it’s called primitive howling meditation. It’s one of Dr. Krajakat’s patented methods.”

“Hey, is that Pierre?” the headdress man says as he approaches.

“Doctor!”

“Oh, Pierre!” he says, hugging him. He has a thick Russian accent. “I’m so glad you could make it! And who are your friends?”

“Oh, this is Dan, and this is Don Bigote,” he says. “They almost killed me earlier.”

“Splendid!” the doctor says, looking at us.

“We have come to seek your wisdom and to test out this ancient technique of, uh…”

“Ayahuasca, sir.”

“Yes, the ancient technique of ayahuasca, in order to better understand the world we are living in,” Bigote says.

“Well, that is splendid, just splendid! You have come to the right place! In fact, we are just about to begin the ceremony!”

§

It’s night now. Everyone is sitting in a big circles around a bonfire. There’s a big metal cauldron on the fire that the doctor has been fussing with.

I feel bad vibes, I gotta admit. The people give me bad vibes. They are all crazy-eyed and they look like they’re the kinda people who have orgies—and not the fun kind with a bunch of hot women, but like sweaty, grimy orgies with pudgy guys involved. Also, this Doctor Crackerjack guy is always smiling, and not in a nice-to-see-you way, but in a I’ve-done-too-many-drugs way, where there’s like a crazy edge do it, you know? Like a couple more rides on the merry-go-round will send him tumbling into another dimension. Maybe it’s just me, but the vibes are there, man.

I’m sitting on a log next to Bigote, who has been oddly silent and grave. Everyone is pretty silent, really. They’re all just watching this doctor guy with his caldron. It’s like a cult, man. People are so nutty. Drugs exist just to have fun: trip out with your friends, or dance maniacally all night to electronic music. But people turn everything into a creepy religion thing. Maybe ayahuasca isn’t as cool as I thought it would be.

Finally it’s time to start. Tin cups are passed around. Then the Doctor picks up the cauldron (it’s not that big) and starts going around solemnly filling up each person’s cup. Jeez, I hope this isn’t a poison Kool-Aid situation. He pours my cup, then Bigote’s. I look down at it. It’s a murky, greenish, brownish liquid. Actually, it looks pretty familiar… Yes, it looks just like that stuff Bigote gave me on the beach that made me shit my insides out!

I look over at Bigote. He’s smiling. “It’s an ingenious concoction, don’t you think?”

That’s it. There’s no way I’m drinking this.

“Before we begin,” the doctor says gravely, after everyone is served, “I want to address some words to the people who are doing this for the first time.” He looks at us. “This is not like mushrooms or LSD. You are not merely going to hallucinate. You are not going to dream, or have a trip. You are going to be visited by Mother Ayahuasca. Now, I am not going to comment on whether this goddess is real or not, but she undoubtedly exists, and she exists to help us, her children, find peace, find happiness, and find the truth. Do not fight this process. Do not push away Mother Ayahuasca. Let her inside your heart, and she will heal you.”

Then he raises his own cup: “To her!” And everyone downs the drug. Everyone, that is, except me. I quietly poured mine into the pushes behind me.

A few minutes go by in silence. Not much happens. I’m expecting everyone to start gagging and keel over. But no, apparently it’s not cyanide. Then, about five minutes in, that’s when the moaning starts. Everyone starts to like groan and mumble, like how people do when they’re asleep and having a dream. This gets gradually louder until people start making all these weird ape-like hoots and a sort of howling sound. Meanwhile, Bigote hasn’t said a word.

Then suddenly someone stands up and shouts: “I am the king of France and you are all my subjects!”

And another: “I am emperor of all the world and I order you to make me a pyramid!”

A girl this time: “I am a living god and I demand  a sacrifice!”

And then everyone gets up—except Bigote—and starts saying all this stuff. Here’s the gist of it:

“I am a devil’s child! I can breath in the sun and spit out the moon! I can fly up three million miles and back in the blink of an eye, ladies and gentlemen, and I can kick the earth off its orbit with one toe. When I’m hungry I eat asteroids and when I’m thirsty I drink the rings of saturn! Do not look at me with your naked eyes, or you will go blind. My voice is loud enough to melt brains and beautiful enough to melt hearts! My heart is a black hole and my bowels are a cosmic nebula! I am the one responsible for night and day, winter and summer, storm and snow! I rule over the boundless expanse of the universe, dictating what planets will support life, what life will go extinct, and what stars will explode. Destroying civilizations is my hobby! Yes, yes, look at me for I am the great omnipotent force that is the basis of all reality!”

This is a summary of the kind of stuff everyone started to say. I guess they really had killed their egos.

During all this, Bigote still hasn’t said anything. He’s just sitting here, staring out into space, totally silent. I’m starting to get a little worried…

“Sir?” I say. “How are you feeling?”

“I can see it now,” Bigote says, slowly and in a deep voice, like he’s hypnotized. “I can see the secret to everything.”

“The secret to everything? What is it?”

“Everything… is… opposite…” he says, and then falls backwards off the log like a stone—dead asleep.

Review: Don Quixote

Review: Don Quixote

Don Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés TrapielloDon Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés Trapiello by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I know who I am,” replied don Quijote, “and I know who I can be…”

I bought this book under the sway of a caprice which, if it were not too hackneyed to say so, I would call quixotic. This was two years ago. I was in the royal palace in La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia. I had just toured the palace—one of the finest in Spain—and was about to explore the French gardens, modeled after those in Versailles, when I encountered the gift shop. Normally I do not buy anything in gift shops, since half of it is rubbish and all of it is overpriced. But this book, this particular volume, called out to me and I obeyed.

It was a foolish purchase—not only because I paid gift-shop prices, but because my Spanish was not anywhere near the level I needed to read it. And at the time, I had no idea I would be staying in Spain for so long. There was a very good chance, in other words, that I would never be able to tackle this overpriced brick with Bible-thin pages. At least I left myself some hope. For this is not the original El ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha—written in Spanish contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s English—but a bastardization: its style diligently modernized by the writer Andrés Trapiello. Even with this crutch, and even with an additional two years of living in Spain, this book was a serious challenge.

Before charging headlong into the thickets of criticism, I want to say a word in praise of Trapiello’s edition. Cervantes’s Spanish is not as difficult as Shakespeare’s English, but it still foreign enough to prove an obstacle even to native speakers. I know many Spaniards, even well-read ones, who have never successfully made it through El Quijote for this very reason (or so they allege). Trapiello has done the Spanish-speaking world a great service, then, since he has successfully made El Quijote as accessible as it would have been to its first readers, while preserving the instantly recognizable Cervantine style. And while I can see why purists would object to this defacement of hallowed beauty, I would counter that, if ever there were a book to painlessly enjoy, it is El Quijote.

To get a taste of the change, here is Trapiello’s opening lines:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, vivía no hace mucho un hidalgo de los de lanza ya olvidada, escudo antiguo, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Consumían tres partes de su hacienda una olla con algo más de vaca que carnero, ropa vieja casi todas las noches, huevos con torreznos los sábados, lentejas los viernes y algún palomino de añadidura los domingos.

And here is the original:

En un lugar de la Mancha, du cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero, salpicón las más noches, duelos y quebrantos los sábados, lentejas los viernes, algún palomino de añadidura los domingos, consumían tres partes de su hacienda.

Now, undeniably something is lost in the transition. Cervantes’s “duelos y quebrantos” (lit. “aches and pains”), for example, is undeniably more evocative than Trapiello’s “huevos con torreznos” (eggs with bacon); but without Trapiello I would have no idea what Cervantes meant. It is also worth noting how similar the two are; Trapiello has taken care to change only what he must.

Onward to the book itself. But I hesitate. The more I contemplate this book, the more I think that a critic must be as daft as the don and as simple as his squire to think he can get to the bottom of it. Cervantes was either extremely muddle-headed or fantastically subtle, since this book resists any definite conclusions you may try to wring from its pages. Perhaps, like many great books, it simply got out of the author’s control. Just as Tolstoy set out to write the parable of a fallen woman and gave us Anna Karenina, and as Mark Twain set out to write a boys’ book and invented American literature, it seems Cervantes set out to write a satire of chivalric romances and produced one of the great works of universal art. It is as if a New Yorker cartoonist accidentally doodled Guernica.

The key to the book’s enduring beauty, I think, is Cervantes’s special brand of irony. He is the only author I know who can produce scorn and admiration in the same sentence. He is able to ruthlessly make fun of everything under the sun, while in the same moment praising them to the heavens. The book itself embodies this paradox: for it is at once the greatest rejection of chivalric romance and its greatest embodiment—an adventure tale that laughs at adventure tales. There is no question that Cervantes finds the old don ridiculous, and he makes us agree with him; yet by the end, Quijote is more heroic than Sir Galahad himself.

The central question the books asks is whether idealism is noble or silly. There is no question that the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is a hilarious figure. But do we laugh at his expense, or at our own? Is his idealism pathetic, or is it our realism? The book resists both horns of this dilemma, until finally we must conclude that we are all—dreamers and realists alike—equally ridiculous. For we all reside in a social world whose rules only exist in our beliefs and in our actions, a world which we create but do not design. It is only Quijote who seems to realize (however unconsciously) that, by changing the script, we can recreate the world. And he does. By the time we get to Part Two, everyone is playing along with Quijote.

Even so, I am not able to go so far as Miguel de Unamuno, and consider Quijote a sort of messiah. I do not think Cervantes’s irony permits this. For Quijote truly is out of touch, and frequently gets pummeled for it. And even when his fantasy inspires others to play along, and to help him create his new world, they never do so for disinterested reasons. Some, including Sancho, play along for gain; others do so to control or to help Quijote; and most do it just to have some fun at his expense. This is the dilemma faced by all revolutionaries: they have the vision to see a better world, the courage to usher it in with their actions, and the charisma to inspire others to follow them; but most worldlings chose to play along for ulterior motives, not for ideals; and so the new world becomes as corrupt as the old one. To put this another way, Quijote’s problem is not that he is out of touch with the social order, but that he is out of touch with the human heart.

Much of the greatness of this book lays in the relationship between the don and his squire. Few friendships in literature are so heartwarming. Sancho, in his simplicity, is the only one who can even partially meet Quijote in his new world—as a genuine participant in Quijote’s make-believe. Of course, Sancho is not free from ulterior motives, either. There is the island he is to rule over. But the longer the story goes on, the more Sancho believes in his master, and the less he pursues material gain. We are relieved to see that, when finally offered his island, the squire comes running back to the don in a matter of days. As the only two inhabitants of their new world, as the only two actors in their play, they are homeless without one another.

It is useful to compare Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’s method of characterization. As Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare’s characters are most truly themselves when they are alone, soliloquizing. When together, on the other hand, even close friends and lovers never seem to communicate perfectly, but talk past each other, or talk for their own benefit, or simply show off. But don Quijote and Sancho Panza are most truly themselves when they are with each other; they draw one another out and spur one another on; they ceaselessly bicker while remaining absolutely loyal; they quibble and squabble while understanding one another perfectly. When they are separated during Sancho’s sojourn on the island, the reader feels that each has lost more than half of himself. For my part, though I am not sure it is more “realistic,” I find Cervantes’s friendship more heartening than the bard’s. Though they begin as polar opposites, the squire and the knight influence one another as the story progresses, eventually coming to resemble one another. This beats Romeo and Juliet by a league.

What strikes most contemporary readers of this ur-novel is its modernity. Formally, Cervantes is far more daring than his Victorian successors. This is admittedly more apparent in Part Two, when Cervantes has his characters travel around a world where Part One has already been published and read widely, and where the spurious Part Two by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a pseudonym) has just been released. This leads to self-referential tricks worthy of the coolest postmodernist: the duo encountering readers of the prequels and commenting on their own portrayal. Another daring touch was Cervantes’s use of the Arabic historian Cide Hamete Berengeli—whose Arabic book, found on the streets of Toledo, he is merely transcribing into Castilian—which allows him to comment on the text he is writing: praising the historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and skipping over boring sections in the “original.”

All this is done, not merely to be clever, but to reinforce the sense of infinite irony that pervades the text. The gap opened up by these tricks is what gives Cervantes room to be so delightfully ambiguous. As the authorship is called into question, and as the characters—who are imaginative actors to begin with—become aware of themselves as characters, the sense of a guiding intelligence crafting the story becomes ever more tenuous. The final irony, then, is that this self-referential irony does not undermine the reality of the story, but only reinforces it. In Part Two, especially, the characters leap from the book into reality, becoming both readers and writers of themselves—so real, indeed, that we risk repeating the don’s error of mistaking the book with reality.

Having said all this in praise of El Quijote, I should mention some of the book’s flaws. These are mostly confined to Part One, wherein Cervantes inserts several short novelas that have, for the most part, aged poorly. At the time there was, apparently, a craze for pastoral love stories involving shepherds and shepherdesses, which nowadays is soppy sentimental trash. One must also admit that Cervantes’s was a very mediocre poet, so the verse scattered throughout these pages can safely be skipped. On the whole, though the book’s most iconic moments are in Part One, Part Two is much superior and more innovative.

Part Two is also far sadder. And this is the last ambiguity: the reader can never fully decide whether to laugh or cry. Tragedy and comedy are blended so deeply together that no emotional response seems adequate. I still have not decided with any certainty how I feel or what I think about this book. All I know is that I wish it could go on forever—that I could read another chapter of don Quijote’s and Sancho Panza’s adventures for the rest of my life. To reach the end is unbearable. Don Quijote should live eternal life. And he will.

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Review: Our Lord Don Quixote

Review: Our Lord Don Quixote

Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho/ the Life of Don Quijote and Sancho (Letras Hispanicas / Hispanic Writings)Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho/ the Life of Don Quijote and Sancho by Miguel de Unamuno

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘For me alone was Don Quixote born, and myself for his sake; he knew how to act and I to write,’ Cervantes has written with his pen. And I say that for Cervantes to recount their lives, and for me to explain and elucidate them, were born Don Quijote and Sancho. Cervantes was born to narrate, and to write commentary was I made.

Miguel de Unamuno defies classification. At once a philosopher, a literary critic, a novelist, a poet, and an essayist—and yet none of them completely—he resembled Nietzsche in his mercurial identity. In this way, too, did he resemble Nietzsche: though he had many themes and central ideas, he had no system. He wrote in short feverish bursts, each one as fiery and explosive as a sermon, going off into the branches (as the Spanish say) and returning again and again to his ostensible subject—only to depart once more. He was a wandering knight errant of a writer.

Unamuno was a member of the so-called Generation of ‘98. The date—1898—alludes to the Spanish-American war, a conflict in which Spain suffered a humiliating defeat and lost nearly all of her colonies. After this, it became impossible to see Spain as a world power; her decline and decadence were incontrovertible. This generation of intellectuals and artists was, therefore, concerned with rejuvenating Spanish culture. In Unamuno’s case, this took the form of finding Spain’s ‘essence’: which he did in the person of Don Quixote. He sees in the knight errant everything profound and important in Spanish culture, as a kind of Messiah of Spanish Catholicism, often comparing Quixote to Iñigo de Loyola and Teresa de Ávila.

This book has, therefore, a quasi-nationalistic aim, which may weary the non-Spanish reader. But it survives as one of the greatest works of criticism written on Spain’s greatest book.

The title of Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho is usually rendered in English as Our Lord Don Quijote; and this title, though not literal, does ample justice to Unamuno’s project. In this work Unamuno undertakes to write a full, chapter-by-chapter commentary on Cervantes’ novel; but his commentary is no conventional literary criticism. Unamuno declares his belief that Don Quixote and his squire were real, and that Cervantes did a grave injustice to their lives by writing it as a farce. In reality, the Don was a hero of the highest order, a saint and a savior, and Unamuno aims to reveal the holiness of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance for his readers.

Unamuno is, thus, the most quixotic of interpreters. He claims to see naught but pure nobility and heroism in the great knight from La Mancha. And yet the grandiose and ludicrous claims of Unamuno, and the farcical nature of Don Quixote himself, put the reader on guard: this commentary, like the great novel itself, is laden with delicate irony—an irony that does not undermine Unamuno’s literal meaning, but complements and complicates it.

You might call this Cervantine irony, and it is difficult to adequately describe, since it relies on a contradiction. It is the contradiction of Don Quixote himself: perhaps the most heroic character in all of literature, braver than Achilles and nobler than Odysseus, and yet laughably ridiculous—at times even pitiable and pathetic. We are thus faced with a dilemma: applaud the knight, or ridicule him? Neither seems satisfactory. At times Quixote is undeniably funny, a poor fool who tilts at windmills; but by the end of the novel—an ending more tragic than the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies—when he renounces his life as a knight and condemns all his adventures as insanity, we cannot help but feel profoundly sad, and we plead along with Sancho that he continue to live in his fantasy world, if not for his sake than for ours.

This is the paradox of idealism. To change the world you must be able to re-imagine it: to see it for what it might be rather than for what it is. Further, you must act “as if”—to pretend, as it were, that you were living in a better world. How can you hope to transform a dishonest world if you are not honest yourself, if you do not insist on taking others at their word? Quixoticism is thus the recipe for improving the world. Dorothea, from Middlemarch, is a quietly quixotic figure, only seeing pure intentions in those around her. But paradoxically, by presupposing only the best, and seeing goodness where it is not, she creates the goodness that she imagines. Confronted with a person who sees only the most generous motives, those she meets actually become kind and generous in her presence.

We then must ask: Is Dorothea a fool? And if so, does it even matter? And what does it even mean to be a fool? For as Lionel Trilling pointed out, Cervantes posed one of the central questions of literature: What is the relationship between fiction and reality?

Human reality is peculiar: We acknowledge an entire class of facts that are only facts because of social agreement. The value of a dollar, for example, or the rules of football are real enough—we see their effects every day—and yet, if everyone were to change their opinion at once, these “facts” would evaporate. These “social facts” dominate our lives: that Donald Trump is president and that the United States is a country are two more examples. You might say that these are facts only because everyone acts “as if” they are: and our actions constitute their being true.

The reality that Don Quixote inhabits is not, in this sense, less real than this “normal” social reality. He simply acts “as if” he were residing in another social world, one purer and nobler. And in doing so, he engenders his own reality—a reality inspired by his pure and noble heart. What is a queen, after all, but a woman who we agree to treat as special? And if Don Quixote treats his Dulcinea the same way, what prevents her from being a queen? What is a helmet but a piece of metal we choose to put on our heads? And if Don Quixote treats his barber’s bowl as a helmet, isn’t it one? We see this happen again and again: the great knight transforms those around him, making them lords and ladies, monsters and villains, only by seeing them differently.

In this way, Don Quixote opens a gulf for us: by acknowledging the conventional nature of much of our reality, and the power of the imagination to change it, we are left groping. What does it mean for something to be real? What does it mean to be mistaken, or to be a fool? To improve the world, must we see it falsely? Is this false seeing even “false,” or is it profoundly true? In short, what is the relationship between fiction and fact?

To me, this is the central question of Cervantes’ novel. But it remains a dead issue if we choose to see Quixote merely as a fool, as he is so commonly understood. Indeed I think we laugh at the knight partly out of self-defense, to avoid these troublesome issues. Unamuno’s worshipful commentary pushes against this tendency, and allows us to see the knight in all his heroism.

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Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá de Henares

Day Trips from Madrid: Alcalá de Henares

(I wrote this post only a few months after my arrival in Spain, while I was still mostly ignorant of the country and its language. With the exception of Chinchón, I have visited all of these places since then, so I have appended little notes at the end of my posts about what I now know. I have also broken up my original post for ease of navigation.)


There are many advantages to living in Madrid. It’s big, it’s bustling, and it’s diverse. But one of my favorite aspects of Madrid is its location. By design, the capital of Spain is almost equidistant from every corner of the country; to drive from Madrid to Catalonia, to Andalusia, to the Basque Country, and to Galicia all take roughly the same amount of time. And transportation isn’t hard to find; the city is well connected by rail, highway, and plane to all points of the compass. Travel is cheap, easy, and fast.

As a consequence, there are a great many excellent day trips you can take from Madrid. I’ve already written about some of them: Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial. In these posts, I want to talk about some of the perhaps lesser-known cities for day-trippers. I’ll start at the very beginning, with my first trip inside Spain.


Alcalá de Henares

As soon as I got to Spain, I blabbed to everybody I met that I had read Don Quixote. I was very proud of this, for I thought it gave me some kind of badge of honor in Spanish culture. And indeed, a few people seemed genuinely impressed—though less so when I told them I read it in English.

“Ah, so you like Cervantes?” a friend of ours said.

“Oh yes, he’s incredible.”

“You should visit Alcalá de Henares, then. It’s where Cervantes was born.”

This was only our second week in Spain, and we were still a bit disoriented by our surroundings. The prospect of taking an actual trip in Spain seemed almost Herculean, an added challenge to the day-to-day struggle of navigating our new city. But I was determined to get culture, by hell or high water; so as soon as we could, we made it to Atocha station and took the Cercanías to Alcalá de Henares. (For once in our lives, we found the train without a problem.)

The train was too full for us to sit down. We stood by the doors, both of us swaying nervously with the ever-present anxiety you feel when in a strange environment. I was looking forward to seeing the area around Madrid, but the windows were smudged and dirty; and the view, from what I could see, wasn’t much anyway—just the featureless tan wasteland of the dry foothills. Before even coming to Spain I had terrified myself by reading online stories about the ingenuity of pickpockets in Europe, and couldn’t stop casting interrogative glances at all the passengers around me, wondering whether any of them were thieves eyeing me up, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Station after station went by, and I was paying fierce attention to all of them, paranoid that we would miss our stop and get hopelessly lost. It’s really exhausting traveling somewhere totally new—it is for me, at least—because you can’t take anything for granted. The doors of the trains work differently; the seats are arranged differently; the automatic announcer is speaking a foreign language. Added to this, I was constantly afraid of doing something wrong by accident, breaking the train etiquette of Spain and drawing everyone’s attention to myself. It’s pretty amusing to me now, as I look back; but then it was just stressful and scary.

We arrived. After some confused mucking about, we began making our way to the center of town. Neither of us had Spanish SIM cards yet, so our phones didn’t work. We just followed the crowd, who all seemed to be walking in the same direction. The city seemed rather ordinary at first—though even this was interesting to me, since I hadn’t seen any city in Spain besides Madrid yet—but soon something caught our eye. It looked like a little castle, with a tower on one end and a tiny battlement at the top of a square structure.

IMG_0364

But what really made it stand out was the intricate ornamentation. The façade of the tower, for example, was covered in swirls. It was quite pretty. Although we didn’t know this at the time, it’s called the Palacete Laredo, and is one of the famous monuments of Alcalá. It was originally built as a private house for Manuel Laredo, a polymath artist who served as the mayor of Alcalá de Henares. Nowadays, it serves as a museum of the Cistercian order, as well as a specialized research branch of the Complutense University.

Looking back now, I can tell that it was built in a Neo-Mudéjar style, with crescent arches and a domed minaret. The top of the main building, however, is not Neo-Mudéjar in style, but rather looks like a small copy of the Alcázar in Segovia. In fact, the more I look at my pictures, the more of a stylistic jumble the place appears, with all sorts of different Spanish architectural elements mixed together. Of course, at the time I just thought it looked weird.

We kept going, following the trickle of pedestrians into the center of town. Eventually the buildings started to look older; the streets were narrower here and paved with stone. But what most caught our attention was a big beautiful bird, sitting on top of an old church. It looked so incongruous and stood so still that we were convinced it was fake—that is, until it twitched its head. When we got a bit closer we could see it had built a big, bushy nest up high on the building.

IMG_0399.jpg

As we moved on, following the throng of people wherever it seemed thickest, we eventually found ourselves in a dense crowd. Little shacks were set up all over the place, selling cheese, sausage, olives, nuts, spices, tea, wooden bowls, leather bags, colorful scarves, cheap jewelry. Not only that, but all the people in these shops were dressed up in funny outfits, like they were in Medieval times. Was Spain always like this on the weekends? I was both excited and terrified—excited to see a slice of Spanish life, but now scared more than ever about being pickpocketed.

We rounded a corner and came across an outdoor restaurant. Dozens of tables and chairs were gathered under a tent. Several harried men in ridiculous costumes—looking like court jesters, with striped red and white shirts and big puffy hats—were running left and right, carrying massive trays of food. Outside the tent was the cooking area, where a large circular charcoal grill was covered in sausages, meats, fish, and vegetables of all kinds. Immediately I felt very, very hungry. From the shops were hung all manner of flags and banners painted with signs from medieval heraldry—black, yellow, and red.

Every new street we entered was more packed than the last. Soon it dawned on us that this wasn’t at all normal, but was some kind of special festival. As if to confirm our suspicion, a group of men dressed up like medieval soldiers, with fake swords by their sides, paraded through the crowd while another man, dressed in rags, pretended to be a lunatic. One of the soldiers held him by a rope, while the maniac ran after people in the crowd (mostly women), gargling his throat and reaching out his dirty hands. Another soldier was beating a big bass drum, while they all shouted things that I couldn’t understand.

Alcala Marching Band

(As we later learned, this was the Cervantino, a medieval fair named after Cervantes, which is held in the first couple weeks of October. I have since gone back twice, and I highly recommend it.)

We wandered along this way, two bewildered Americans, absolutely intimidated by our surroundings, until eventually we were standing in front of a couple of statues. I immediately recognized these as being Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; both of them were sitting on a bench, and seemed to be having a damned good time. In between the knight errant and his square there was a space on the bench where tourist after tourist was lining up to have their picture taken. I would have had my picture taken, too, if I wasn’t so afraid that my phone would disappear as soon as I took it out of my pocket.

Don and Sancho statue

Behind the bench was the Cervantes House—the house where Cervantes himself was born and reared. We got on line and went right in. It’s quite a small place, actually. In the center of the house is a little courtyard, around which every room is situated. The insides of these rooms were furnished to look like they would have during Cervantes’ lifetime. I have to admit not much caught my eye, except perhaps the old kitchen equipment. It was more rewarding just to pace about, thinking that I was standing in the very place where Cervantes, that master of masters, entered into the world. This feeling was so strange to me that I’m not sure I quite took it in. This was perhaps the first appearance of “European Travel Syndrome” in my life. You simply can’t have an experience like this in New York.

Cervantes Statue
The statue of Cervantes in the main square

In just half an hour, we were out in the street again. We didn’t know anything else to do except walk around, seeing as much of the city as we could. Many of the buildings were impressive; but at this early stage, we didn’t really know how to go about visiting buildings or even how to look at them. In fact, what I most remember were not the buildings themselves, but the dozens stork nests sitting snuggly on rooftops, their bushy lairs looking somehow both ridiculous and majestic.

Alcala Food Stand

Eventually, we decided to sit down to eat in one of those tent restaurants. The waiter ran up to us, his floppy hat thrown over to one side of his head, and asked us in a slew of Spanish words what we wanted. We ordered two things, and he was off. At this point, we were so clueless in Spanish that most of the time we didn’t even know what we were ordering in restaurants. This was a classic example: We asked for “pimientos fritos” thinking they were french fries; five minutes later, the waiter dropped a plate of fried, salted green peppers on our table. I know, I know, this is an embarrassing mistake, not least because “potato” is “patata” here—not hard to guess.

The upside of our ignorance was that we ended up learning a lot about Spanish food, since we accidentally ate a lot of it. These pimientos were a case in point: we loved them, and pimientos now are one of our staple dishes. Really, if you’re in Spain and you can’t speak Spanish, just go into a restaurant and order whatever sounds interesting. All the food is good here.

After eating the pimientos, and then following it with a plate full of chorizo and tomato sauce on bread, we began to walk around again. But I’m afraid we didn’t do much of interest; and in an hour, we were on our way back to the train station to return to Madrid.

Reading over what I just wrote, and comparing it to what I find online about Alcalá de Henares, it’s obvious to me that we left most of the main sights unseen. Oh well, next time. But it was a fantastic stroke of luck to arrive on the very weekend when they were having their famous Medieval Market. And as I look back on it, this trip seems to presage our whole time in Spain so far: we arrive clueless and unprepared, and yet everything works out marvelously. Traveling in Spain is, in fact, a lot like ordering in a Spanish restaurant: even if you have no idea what you’ll get, you can be sure it will be delightful.


Alcala University

Addendum: Since this initial trip, I have since learned that Alcalá de Henares has been more than simply the birthplace of Cervantes, but has played an important role in Spanish history.

The city has existed since at least Roman times, when it was known as Complutum. It was in this town that Cardinal Cisneros, one of the leading functionaries of the Catholic Monarchs, founded the University of Alcalá in 1499. Under his direction the scholars of the university undertook and completed one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of the Spanish Golden Age, the Polyglot Bible, which contained the entire text of the Old and New Testaments in three languages: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek—and sometimes Aramaic. The University was eventually moved to Madrid, where it was renamed the Complutense (which comes from Alcalá’s Latin name); and it remains one of the major universities in the country.

The original university building still stands in Alcalá’s main square. Its frontal façade is magnificent, and for a small price you can take a guided tour to learn about the university’s history.

The Cathedral of Alcalá is also worth a visit. Although it was burned during the Spanish Civil War, thus destroying many of its decorations and altars, it remains an attractive building. The cathedral is, curiously, the unique for being the only one in the world which possess the title “Magistral Church,” which requires that all of its priests be doctors in theology. 

Alcala Cathedral

Don Bigote: Chapter 2

Don Bigote: Chapter 2

(Continued from Chapter 1.)

Don and Dan Take a Flight

Next Monday, as usual, I walk in Bigote’s front door. Also as usual, I’m hungover. I’m wearing sunglasses and everything is still too bright, it’s a quiet morning but the birds chirping nearby are deafening. My stomach feels like it’s full of acidic foam, and I have a crappy taste in my mouth that won’t go away no matter how much water I drink or how many times I spit, and every once in a while something shifts uncomfortably in my intestines. And do I regret a thing?

Bigote’s place is even messier than usual. A book is splayed open on the floor, right in front of the door, so I accidentally kick it as I walked in.

“Fuck!” I say, bending down over my stubbed toe. “Fuck, shit, bitch!”

I was wearing flip flops, and the book was one of those big hard-cover tombstone books that nobody reads, so my toe hurt. A lot.

“Fucking shit,” I say, as I flip the offending book to see its title. It’s called The Decline of the West. Of course.

“Dan, is that you?” comes a voice from the kitchen.

“Yes, it’s fucking me. Why don’t you clean up your damn house when you know people are coming over?”

“Sorry, Dan, I can’t quite hear you from out there. Would you mind coming over here? I have something cooking, and the crackling oil is causing quite a ruckus.”

I come into the kitchen. Don Bigote is stooped over a frying pan, spectacles down on his nose, a grease-stained cookbook by his side, surrounded by dirty measuring cups, a ripped open bag of sugar, an empty carton of milk, and of course his mustache thoughtfully standing guard over the whole scene.

“I thought that I would prepare some breakfast for you, in thanks for getting me out of that perilous situation last Friday.”

“Uh, oh yeah, cool.”

“It’s just finished!” he says, and begins scrapping the contents of the frying pan onto some plates nearby. He walks over and puts one in front of me. It’s full of bacon burnt to a crisp and a rubbery fried egg.

“You needed a cookbook for this?” I say.

“Pardon?”

“Oh, forget it,” I say, and take a big bite of the carbon meat.

“Is this in reference to the plan of building a shelter? Because, if so, I quite agree.”

“Huh?”

“You’re quite right, Dan. My original idea was seriously flawed. For one, building a shelter in the United States leaves us too open to detection and attack. We need to distance ourselves some more from the center of the conspiracy. Besides, how could I hope to preserve the treasures of Western culture from here? What a blockhead I am! Clearly, we need to go to Europe—to the motherland, so to speak—if we earnestly wish to gather the fruits of European cultural achievement.”

“Huh? Go to Europe?”

“Yes, Dan, it’s a far better plan. We can simultaneously isolate ourselves (to some extent) from the grasping reaches of our enemies, while putting ourselves in direct contact with the civilization we hope to preserve. It’s perfect!”

“You’re talking about ‘us’ again.”

“Well, of course, you must come with me. As you demonstrated in Home Depot, you are invaluable to me. Without you, I would have succumbed to my own foolish impulses.”

“You’re saying you’re gonna take me to Europe?”

“That is an adequate summary of my proposal.”

“Woah, dude. Where in Europe?”

“Excellent question, my dear Dan Chopin. I have considered all the political entities, both large states and small, and there is one clear best option: Spain. Spain is geopolitically unimportant enough to make it a safe hiding place. It has a great deal of historic depth, possessing some fine Roman ruins, to name just one example. It is the birthplace of some of the most excellent architects, artists, musicians, and writers who have ever lived and breathed. And, most importantly, the Spanish already have experience in fighting the Muslims and the Mexicans.”

“Uh yeah?” I say, as I struggle to chew the fried egg, which has the approximate texture of a car tire.

“Yes, indeed. For seven whole centuries, Muslims lived in their country—a long, dark night of oppression!—until the brave Spanish Christians rose up and pushed them out. And of course the Spaniards are responsible for toppling the ancient Mexican empires in the Americas.”

“So, wait,” I say, having finally finished swallowing the egg. “Let me get all this straight. You are offering to pay for me to go with you to Spain?”

“Yes.”

“So we can, like, learn about Europe and all that?”

“That’s it.”

“Hell yeah!” I say. “Let’s get our asses out of Alabama!”

* * *

Four days later, we’re in the car on the way to the airport.

I’m driving—I don’t trust that whack job behind the wheel—and Don Bigote is sitting in the passenger seat, the window rolled down, his mustache fluttering in the wind. Through the ventilators I can smell the burning chemical odor of the old truck’s worn-out transmission. Several cars have honked at us because of the trail of impenetrable black smoke we are leaving behind us. Well, they can go to hell.

I’m feeling a little weird about the whole thing. Bigote is one strange dude, no joke, and I think his relationship with reality is worse than my relationship with my ex-girlfriend, Sharona, who once threw my phone in a public toilet. Is this really a good idea? What if he does something equally crazy as he did in Home Depot and gets us thrown into Spanish jail? Well, Spanish jail doesn’t sound so bad. I read online somewhere that they’re co-ed.

My dad was totally against the idea.

“What?! Go to Europe with the Colonel? That’s totally insane!”

“But, dear,” mom said. “It’s just for a few months, and maybe it can be really good for him.”

“I’m getting paid,” I said.

“Yeah, but have you seen that guy? He’s a crank, a loony, a crackpot. What’s he going to do in a foreign country? Does he even speak Spanish?”

“There’s Google translate, dad.”

“Oh, honey,” mom said to dad. “I think this is a great opportunity! Danny can travel, get some work experience. And, after all, Bigote isn’t all that bad. He’s a bit of a hippie, sure, and eccentric, but I don’t think he’s at all dangerous.”

“I don’t feel good about this at all,” dad said. “Danny, listen. If anything goes wrong, just get on a plane and fly home. Don’t worry about the money.”

That’s roughly how the conversation went. So yeah, I suppose I have an escape option if worse comes to worse.

I see the sign for the airport, and take the exit.

“Where should I park?” I say.

“Oh, just over there.”

“But the sign says 72 Hours Maximum. Isn’t there a long-term parking or something?”

“Oh, Dan. What’s it matter? I’m never coming back!”

“What?!”

“Well, maybe some day, far in the future, after the great Cataclysm.”

“I don’t remember you telling me this.”

“No need to worry, Dan, we can just leave this old thing anywhere.”

“You’re the boss,” I say, and pull into a spot.

We get out and begin getting our bags. It isn’t much. I have a duffle bag and a backpack, and Bigote a brown leather briefcase and one of those rolling suitecases. We shut the doors and lock the car.

“Goodbye, old friend,” says Bigot, tenderly touching his shitty pickup truck. “You’ve been good to me.”

And we turn and walk through the parking lot towards the terminal.

“You know, Dan,” Don says, “apart from being a necessary means of transportation, this voyage also provides us an excellent opportunity to investigate air travel, one of the West’s most triumphant achievements.”

“Ever flown before?” I say.

“Actually, no. This will be my first aerial experience, and I must say that I am tremendously excited. The only thing which prevents me from being positively jubilant on this occasion is the unfortunate, but inescapable, global conspiracy.”

“Well, we’ll get away from that soon enough,” I say.

“Ah, don’t be so sure, Dan, don’t be so sure. The conspiracy reaches everywhere. Even this whole business of tickets, passports, visas, security—all this tyrannical nonsense!—it’s just a way for the conspiracy to control our movements, and by doing so, our minds.”

“I thought it was because of 9/11 and stuff like that?”

“Dan, sometimes your ignorance pains me. 9/11 is connected to this, yes, but of course you must realize it was a false-flag operation.”

“A what flag?”

“You see, it is true that the Muslims were behind it, as everyone already believes. But what is not true is that it was the work of a relatively small band of Muslims, without the government’s notice. You see, the Muslims are the government now. They tricked some poor fools into hijacking those planes, in order to distract the populace, to scare us, allowing the executive branch to expand its power, and the security state to extend its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. Just like we find here!”

Bigote gestures grandly at the airport.

“So, you’re saying that Muslims, who own the government, destroyed the Twin Towers in order to expand the power of the government, and then blamed Muslims?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, I just hope they don’t do it to our flight,” I say. “Alright, let’s double check. Do you have your passport?”

“Right here,” Bigote says, taking out a blue booklet and handing it to me.

“Good.”

“Well done, isn’t it?” Bigote says, winking at me.

“Huh?”

“Pretty convincing, eh?”

“Convincing?” I say, blinking in disbelief. “Don, is this a fake?”

“Why, of course it is. I am traveling under a fake name, so I can’t use a real passport.”

“Are you kidding me?!”

“Don’t worry, Dan, I followed an instructional video. They said it’s guaranteed.”

I flipped through the pages, and immediately noticed that the edges were coming apart, like the whole thing was held together by Elmer’s glue.

“You better not get us arrested,” I say.

“Dan, have some faith in me. We only need this to get into Spain. Once there, I’ll make another one.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, because I’m going to need to forge a visa, of course.”

“Forge a visa?”

“And you too.”

“Why?!”

“Dan, I feel like I have to spell everything out for you. On a tourist visa, you can only stay for 90 days, which is of course not nearly enough time. And I can’t exactly obtain a working visa or a residency visa—for the aforementioned problem that I am traveling under an assumed name. Satisfied?”

“Oh, God, I’m going to jail, I’m going to Guantanamo Bay!”

“That’s another false flag, I’m afraid,” says Bigote.

* * *

We check in successfully—the woman at the front desk looks a little too long at Bigote’s passport, but finally lets us go—and now we’re on the line to security.

I am sweating like a pig already. Fuck, I am such an idiot! Dad was right, I should never have tried to take a trip with this nut. Look at him: bobbing his head up and down like he’s brain-dead, walking like he’s got a stick up his ass, with those stupid thin glasses on the tip of his nose—does he even need glasses?—and that ridiculous mustache. Oh God, why doesn’t he trim that thing? His mustache makes him look even more suspicious!

I look ahead to the security guards. Oh no, they’re ethnic! Bigote is going to think they’re Muslims or Mexicans or something. Fuck my life!

“All liquids must be put into a sealed plastic bag,” says one of the guards in a mechanical monotone, “and separated from your luggage. Please take your laptops out of your bags and out of their cases, and put them into a separate tray. All cell phones, keys, jackets, belts, shoes, and metal objects need to go into a bin and through the machine.”

The people ahead of us are all doing that awkward scramble where they unpack half their luggage and get half-undressed, only to be waved through the machine to the other side, where half of them are stopped anyways to have their bags searched or their bodies waved with the metal wand, or something.

“Okay, so, just like we practiced, okay?” I whisper to Bigote.

“Of course, Dan. No need to worry. I have done thorough research.”

“Ok, well, just stay quiet.”

We get to the conveyor belt thing and begin doing the undressing dance. I put my little duffle bag on the conveyor belt. Soon I’m being waved through the metal detector, which thankfully doesn’t beep. I look behind me, and see that Bigote is fumbling with his belt, which is really difficult to take off because wearing a giant brass belt-buckle shaped like the state of Texas. Jesus…

I turn back and look for my bag. Some bald security guard, wearing white latex gloves, is standing over it.

“Sir, is this your bag?” he says.

“Yep.”

“Okay, I’m just going to do a quick chemical test.”

“A what?”

“Wait right here, sir.”

He pulls out a little white cloth thing and begins whipping it all over my bag. He goes over to a machine and puts the cloth inside. He looks down at it, and frowns.

“Sir, would you mind if I searched your bag?”

“Um, kinda.”

“Sir, the machine gave me a positive reading for marijuana, so I have to perform a search in order to let you through.”

“You can detect weed? No way!”

He quickly unzips the bag and begins ruffling through my stuff. Shit, shit, shit. Try not to look nervous. Ah, but it’s too late! I’m fucked! My weed is in an old pencil case in one of the side-pockets…

SIR, STOP WHERE YOU ARE NOW AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD!”

Someone behind me shouts this at the top of his voice. There is a confusion of screams and shouts, as people around me start running away in all directions. The cop searching my luggage immediately drops what he’s doing, jumps over the conveyor belt, and pulls out his gun.

I look and see Don Bigote standing in the metal detector, his hands on his head, which makes it easy to see his old revolver strapped to his hip. Of course.

He’s surrounded by about five security guards, all of them with their pistols pointed at him. One is radioing for backup.

“Sir, I need you to lie down on the floor, slowly, without moving your hands. Alright?”

“But I have an open carry license!” Bigote says.

“Sir, lie down now or we will have to shoot.”

“It’s my constitutional right!”

SIR, GET DOWN ON THE GROUND!”

“Get the fuck down, Bigote!” I yell at him. “Get your mustachioed ass down!”

Several tense moments pass. Bigote appears torn. A part of him seems to be considering having a shootout. But finally, deciding that he’s outgunned, he follows the cop’s instructions and lays down on the floor. One of the guards approaches carefully and takes the revolver out of his holster. The gun removed, all the guards close in, pinning him on the floor while they put him in handcuffs.

While they’re all busy, I decide that it’s the best time to skedaddle. But just as I’m about to walk off, I hear Bigote say:

“Dan, don’t wait for me!”

The idiot!

“Hey, are you with this guy?” one of the guards says, as he grabs my shoulder and spins me around.

“Uh, him? No…”

“I’m afraid you have to come with us, sir.”

“Oh no!” Bigote shouts, as he’s being dragged off. “Dan, not you too! The monsters!”

Next thing I know, I’m in handcuffs, too, being led off to God knows where. Great.

* * *

This is a nightmare. Wake up, wake up, wake up. Oh man, I should have went to the bathroom before this. Beer and burritos was a terrible idea for breakfast.

I’m sitting in one of those sterile interrogation rooms, like you see on television, except it’s real. The walls are plain white, and there’s a mirror on one side. And I just know a bunch of cops are on the other side, watching us through the glass, probably making fun of Bigote’s mustache. Better not be saying anything about me.

Bigote is right next to me. We’re both seated in these awful metal chairs, our hands handcuffed behind our backs, with an equally metallic table in front of us. Really, it’s just like TV, except on TV they usually separate the terrorist suspects. Also, on TV the terrorists usually don’t need to take a big, probably smelly dump while they’re being interrogated.

“Dan, I’m so—”

NO TALKING!” cracks a voice on the loudspeakers, interrupting Bigote.

Silence resumes. All I can hear is a ventilator and Bigote’s breathing, which sounds like another ventilator.

Right on cue, a detective enters. He looks the part: big masculine jaw with five o’clock shadow, big buff shoulders underneath a black suit, and all the rest. He closes the door behind him, walks over to the empty seat across from us, and sits down.

“My name is Detective Murky,” he says, his voice all gruff-like, “and I’m here to find out what the hell you were doing with that gun.”

“We’ll never talk!” Bigote shouts, his voice choked with enthusiasm. “Never!”

“Can’t we like, get a lawyer or something?” I say.

“Terrorists don’t get lawyers!” says Murky.

“A lawyer, ha!” Bigote says. “They’re some of the most heinous conspirators!”

“Jesus Christ, Bigote,” I say. “Will you shut the fuck up?”

“Enough playing around!” Murky says, slamming his fist on the table. “Who are you? Muslims extremists?”

“Oh, please,” Bigote says. “Is this your plan? Frame us as Muslims conspirators? We’re not even circumcised!”

“Speak for yourself dude,” I say.

“Dan, let me handle this.”

“Not circumcised?” Murky says. “Who are you, then?”

I hear Bigote inhale slowly.

“I suppose at this point,” Bigote says, “there’s no use in trying to keep a secret.”

“That’s damn right.”

“You see,” Bigote says, “we’re on a mission, a mission to save civilization.”

“Save civilization from what? American tyranny?”

“Don’t be a fool!” Bigote says. “From the international Muslim-Mexican-homosexual-feminist-Marxist-scientific conspiracy!”

Murky’s eyes widen, and he sits up even straighter in his chair.

“Explain,” he says.

“Well, there is no time for details. But suffice to say the conspirators have already penetrated every layer of government, and are now very near their goal: the total collapse of Western civilization. I wouldn’t be surprised if you yourself were an agent.”

“Okay…” says Murky, his eyes narrowing. “What’s your mission, then?”

“You see,” Bigote says. “If my calculations are correct, it’s far too late to prevent the conspiracy from succeeding. But there is still some time—a few years, maybe—to prepare for the inevitable. That’s why I’m trying to go to Spain, to gather up the fruits of Western civilization and preserve them for the scattered bands of survivors who will survive the collapse.”

Murky sits for a few seconds, saying nothing, rubbing his temples with one hand. Meanwhile, the pressure in my intestines is becoming uncontainable. The inevitable happens. A fart begins to escape my insides, seeping out slowly at first, making a whirring whistling sound, but quickly accelerating into a roaring flapping explosion that fills the entire room with its rumbling.

A few seconds of dreadful silence pass—the interval between the explosion’s report and the explosion’s effects—as the sound disappears into an echo, and then into a dreadful memory shared by everyone present. And then, finally, the smell hits.

I detect it first—it’s even worse than usual, a mixture of rotten eggs, vinegar, and old ham that’s gone bad—and then Bigote catches a whiff (I can tell because he starts coughing), and finally it reaches Murky, whose only reaction is to blanch paper white.

“Excuse me,” he says, and quickly leaves the room.

“Dan, that was brilliant,” Bigote says, between coughs. “Excellent diversionary tactic. Now, help me figure out how to slip out of these metallic restaints.”

“You know they can hear and see everything we’re doing, right?”

“That’s just what they want you to think, Dan. Now hurry! There’s not much time.”

Suddenly, the lights go out. Someone has pulled the alarm! The sprinkler’s start drenching us with water, a siren is whirring, a bell is ringing, and red lights are flashing. As if my headache wasn’t bad enough already.

Murky bursts in the door.

“Quick!” he says “Come with me!”

With his left hand he jerks me to my feet, and with his right hand he takes Bigote. Soon we are being pushed into the hallway, around a corner, through a corridor, as people all around us are running left and right, carrying folders, bundles of paper, laptops, and crying babies, trying to protect what they can from the sprinklers.

“Is there a fire?” Bigote says.

“Just shut up and move!” Murky answers.

After what seems like a long time, Murky slams us both against a wall.

“Wait,” he says, as if we have a choice. He gets out a big bunch of keys like janitors always carry, fumbles a bit, finds the right one, and then opens a nearby door.

“Come on!” he says, and grabs us again.

Now we’re outside, somewhere in the airport. He puts us both in the back of one of those little golf cart things that security guards use, and begins to drive.

“What on earth is going on?” Bigote screams.

“Sorry about the alarm,” Murky yells back as he’s driving. “There wasn’t anyway else to get you guys out of there.”

“What? You pulled it?” I say.

“Not only that, but I disconnected the security footage so they wouldn’t see us escape.”

“This must mean that my worst fears are confirmed,” Bigote says. “He’s an agent of the conspiracy, Danny. We’re being taken to one of their brainwashing facilities where we’re going to be forced to watch gay porn and global warming documentaries until we lose touch with reality.”

“You don’t understand,” Murky says. “I’m helping you escape.”

“Sweet!” I say. “Thanks! Hey, did you also manage to get my weed?”

“Why would you help us?” Bigote says.

“Listen,” Murky says. “I got this job because I wanted to keep my country safe from foreigners. But the more I see what’s going on in the world, the more I think that our own government is on their side! First that scumbag Obama was elected, a secret Muslims who was born in Kenya—that birth-certificate was an obvious forgery!—and then all these Syrian refugees? The whole world has gone crazy!”

“Exactly!” Bigote cries.

“So when you told me what you what you were doing, I thought, ‘Well, here’s a man I got to help’.”

“Oh, rejoice, rejoice!” Bigote says. “Thank heavens for the few remnants of decency in this godforsaken world!”

We arrive in the parking lot, and Murky takes off our handcuffs and lets us go.

“Now get in your car and drive off quick.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” Bigote says, clasping Murky’s hand.

“Don’t mention it,” Murky says. “Now go, fast!”

Bigote and I jump in the pickup truck, drive straight through the parking gate (no time for the fee), and onto the highway, leaving a cloud of black smoke trailing behind us as we speed away towards our next misadventure.

(Continued in Chapter 3.)

Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don Bigote: Chapter 1

Don and Dan Build a Shelter

In a little town in Alabama—where exactly I won’t tell you, since my dad says the internet is full of creeps—there lives a man who wears a grey smoking jacket on hot summer days, who has a loaded antique revolver on his hip at all times, and who keeps an arthritic greyhound out back. This guy is my neighbor, Don Bigote, who everyone calls “Colonel.”

Despite his nickname, I doubt he ever was in the army. I think he got it from his habit of wearing a gun all the time (though God knows he isn’t the only person to do that around here). Or maybe it’s the stiff, sort of soldierly way he walks and moves around, like he’s a windup doll made of wood. In any case, it’s clear that the guy was never a soldier, since he’s so skinny and light—basically a skeleton with some skin stretched over it—that a bumblebee’s sigh could sweep him away.

This gauntness, combined with his enormous height, makes him look like a human streetlamp.

But I forgot to mention Don Bigote’s most striking feature: his enormous white mustache. I don’t know how he maintains that thing, since his hair is thin, and the top of his head is totally bald; but the mustache sits proudly and nobly, completely covering his mouth, sneaking up towards his ears, shivering in the wind, perfectly brushed, trimmed, and sculpted. It is a work of art.

Don Bigote isn’t working now. Nobody’s quite sure what he did before he retired. My dad thinks he was a schoolteacher, since “All teachers are useless hippies! And besides how else could he have such a good pension? The good-for-nothing, stealing from the government!”

Most people agree that Bigote’s a bit off. He doesn’t seem to have any friends or family. His social life is confined to his greyhound. The two of them make quite a pair during their walks through the neighborhood. The poor whelp is almost as stiff, skinny, boney, and haggard as Don Bigote himself. The old girl walks slowly, limping slightly, with her head bent down, not pausing to sniff at anything, while Bigote marches forward to an invisible drumbeat.

You get the picture. Well, Don Bigote has been our neighbor for a long time now; and aside from a few neighborly interactions, and aside from the usual commonplace hellos and all that, and aside from the occasional jokes about his weirdness, we haven’t had much to do with him. Not yet, anyway.

Lately I’ve had much more important things to worry about.

I just graduated high school, which is a big deal. That’s something you only do once. You can graduate college multiple times, and you can get married to many different people—consecutively or simultaneously (depending on where you live)—and you can have as many kids are your sexual potency permits and your wife’s (or wive’s) fertility allows, and you can exclude as many of those kids from your will as your heart desires, and you can even die over and over again if someone is kind enough to bring you back to life with a defibrillator—but graduating high school is a one-off thing. So I’m savoring the experience.

To get particular, this savoring involves a lot of drinking and as many girls as I can convince to be a part of the celebrations. I have carefully budgeted, planned, and I have convened counsels, secret and solemn, with friends and acquaintances, and I have run careful reconnaissance missions, sent invitations, bought supplies—beer and condoms, mostly—to ensure that this savoring goes on without any interruption for as long as possible. So far so good.

Last night was no exception. I won’t go into details, but I had a proper debauch. I’ll just say that this morning I woke up on Jimmy’s couch next to someone, needing badly to pee and vomit (not in that order), with a terrible headache and a slight burning sensation in my loins that I hope is just from friction. After taking care of business, I do what I always do: throw on my clothes and sneak out, leaving everything for Jimmy to clean up.

Well, as I’m walking home, bleary-eyed, head pounding, body aching, blinking in the bright day, pausing occasionally to spit up a little into the bushes, this infamous Don Bigote—who, I should make clear now before I forget, is the entire subject of this story, and the entire reason I’m writing in the first place, so pay attention—this infamous Don Bigote, as I was saying, with his mustache twinkling in the sunlight (he must’ve drank something recently, since it looks moist), walks over from his front porch to his fence and starts talking to me.

“Hello, good sir,” he says.

“Ugh,” I reply.

“Fine day, is it not?”

“Yug.”

“Yes, there is a northerly breeze, and the sun’s rays are dripping full down like a waterfall from heaven.”

“Gargle.”

He opens the gate of his fence and approaches closer. I can hardly keep my eyes open, and judging from the sounds my stomach is making, I don’t have long to get to a bathroom (we ate spicy burritos before the party).

“May I ask, sir,” he says, “if I have the honor of talking to the first-born son of Mr. and Mrs. Chopin?”

“Yurgle,” I answer.

“And is this first-born son bestowed with the appellation, ‘Daniel’?”

“That’s me,” I say. “Dan Chopin.” Stomach clock still ticking.

“Ah, what a pleasure,” he says, and stretches out his hand. I do likewise and he very formally and firmly shakes my appendage until he’s good and satisfied.

“And am I correct in the knowledge, recently acquired, that this very same son, Dan Chopin, is recently graduated from high school?”

“Mmmm.” Stomach can’t take much more of this.

“And is this same aforementioned son, the honorable Dan Chopin, currently in want of gainful employment?”

“Uuhhhhhuuuhh!” I scream. “Dude, just send me a letter!” And I run into the house and make it just in time (well, close enough).

I shower, nap, get up, shave, apply deodorant under my armpits and my legpit, and then I go again to the bathroom just to make sure my system is totally vacant, and then—cleaned up, spruced up, and emptied out—I go downstairs to enjoy the good and wholesome cooking of my wonderful mother, who is already busy in the kitchen, as my acute nose informs me.

“You got a letter,” she says as I walk in. “It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What’s for dinner.”

“Chicken. You got a letter. It’s on the table.”

“Oh yeah? What kind of chicken?”

“Roast, with rosemary. The letter is there on the table.”

“And what’s on the side?”

“Potatoes and greenbeans. The letter’s right there on the table.”

“Oh yummy, potatoes and greenbeans!” I say, as I sit down at the table and absently open the letter, thinking it’s just the usual bullshit about college. But then I pause. It’s written in script, and the writing is all squiggly and fancy-like. I need to squint to read it, since who writes in script? It goes like this:

My dear Daniel, 

I hope this letter finds you in good health and fine spirits. I am sorry to have caught you at an inopportune moment earlier today, my sincere apologies.

I am writing you today to introduce a certain proposal into your hands. Recently I have been doing a great deal in my house, and it struck me that I badly require assistance, seeing as I am old and increasingly in need of haste due to events beyond my control.

My proposal is this. I wish to contract your services, for a few hours each week, to help me around the house. For your services, I will give you a suitable monetary reward, the exact amount being negotiable but certainly substantial.

If you wish to accept this offer, or if you are merely intrigued and wish to learn more, please come over any time tomorrow and we will discuss it further. If, however, you cannot or do not wish to accept this offer, be assured that I understand and respect your decision, and no further action need be taken on your part.

 Yours faithfully,

 Don Bigote

What a wackjob. Who writes like this? Well, what should I do? I’ve got so many parties coming up, I don’t think I have any spare time…. tonight at Jimmy’s again, then Thursday I’m with Jessica, then Friday we’re going to the old factory… But then again, if I work during the day, maybe it won’t be a problem. And some extra money could really help with the debauching…

“Hey mom,” I say.

“Not for another five minutes,” she says, stirring something.

“No, it’s not about dinner. But thanks for letter me know.”

“What, then?”

“This letter, it’s from the Colonel. He wants me to work for him.”

“That’s nice, dear.”

“Says he’ll pay.”

“Very nice.”

“What do you think?”

“Well, it sounds terribly nice.”

“Should I do it?”

“I think it would be a nice thing, Danny.”

* * *

Next day at noon, I knock on his door.

In three seconds Don Bigote opens it. He’s dressed the usual way: pistol on hip, grey smoking jacket, mustache looking as sharp as a razor blade.

“My dear Chopin, come in,” he says, gesturing stiffly.

“Yo,” I say. “What’s up?”

“I am so pleased you came.”

We walk to his kitchen. On the way I get a glimpse of his house. It’s a total mess. Magazines, books, and papers are strewn everywhere. It’s a weird assortment of stuff, too—the National Review, ¡Adios America! by Ann Coulter, a book of Latin grammar, a history of the Spanish Reconquista, and several books with the Twin Towers on the cover. Equally random are the pictures on the walls—Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, the Confederate flag, a map of Europe, a glossy photograph of a castle, and an old oil portrait of someone with a big chin who looks historical and important. And the whole place smells like cigars and sawdust.

When we get to his kitchen—chipped plates, dirty dishes, and greasy glasses in the sink, and pots and pans and cutlery strewn everywhere—a radio is playing:

“Nowadays, you can’t say you’re against immigration or the media immediately calls you a racist. Like, am I a racist if I don’t like Mexicans? It’s a conspiracy! The left is trying to open the floodgates, my fellow Americans, and they’re already in control of all the television, all the…”

Don Bigote turns off the radio. Then he pulls out a chair for me at the kitchen table, and walks over to the cabinet to get something. In front of me is a Bible (in the King James translation), and a book called Vaccines and Autism: Behind the Liberal Conspiracy to Poison our Kids.

“I understand,” he says, as he rummages through his shelves, “that nowadays it is illegal for people of your age to partake of alcoholic drinks. Government tyranny!” He pulls down a bottle of bourbon from the shelves. “Those ungodly communists!” He pours me a drink, and pours himself one.

“To freedom!” he says, and we clink glasses. The bourbon burns.

“Onward to business, then,” he says, crossing one leg over the other, sitting straight up as if someone stuck a stick up his ass. “Chopin, before I begin, I need your most solemn promise of confidentiality. What I am about to tell you is very sensitive information, and if you were to tell anybody, maybe even your parents, then things could get very bad for me.”

“No worries, dude. I’m no snitch.”

“Excellent. Well, to begin, surely you are aware, Chopin (not to put too fine a point on it), that the world is in crisis. This much is clear to everybody. Immigrants are pouring in and turning the streets into chaos, Muslim terrorist are sneaking into countries and killing untold numbers of innocents, and the media and the government are doing nothing to stop it.”

“You sound like my dad.”

“Yes, all this is generally known and rightly complained of. But it has lately come to my attention—how exactly, I can’t tell you, just know that it was the process of many years of painstaking research on the internet, searching through countless forums and chatrooms, as well as a huge effort of radio listening and book reading—it has come to my attention that the trouble goes far, far, far deeper than you think.”

“Oh yeah?” I say, and polish off the bourbon.

“You see, all of these events are connected. The Muslims, the Mexican immigrants, the Media, the Government—they aren’t separate phenomena, but are working in a close alliance. And they have been for a long time, Chopin. Now, I don’t want to scare you, but what if I told you that everything from the Twin Towers attack, to global warming, to vaccinations, to multiculturalism, to abortion, to evolution, to feminism—all of these, Chopin, are part of a carefully planned and perfectly executed conspiracy.”

“Is it alright with you if I have another glass?” I say, as I walk over to the bourbon bottle.

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“So, like, why?”

“Why?”

“Yeah, what’s the point of this conspiracy, then?”

“Chopin, don’t be naïve!” he says. “The purpose is as clear as crystal: to end Western Civilization as we know it.”

“Mmmhmm,” I say, mid gulp, mulling it over. “Are you sure about this, dude? Sounds pretty crazy to me. Like, isn’t the government busy killing the terrorists over there? And, like, why would feminists want to blow up the World Trade Center?”

“I know it may seem hard to believe,” he says. “But that’s just the brilliance of it—that’s why nobody but me has figured out the truth.”

“Well, alright. Then shouldn’t we stop it? Or like tell the police?”

“Chopin, Chopin, I wish we could. But I’m afraid the conspiracy goes far too deep. I mean, look at this.”

He pulls out a twenty dollar bill from his pocket.

“Just watch.”

He starts folding it very carefully, like its origami or something. When he’s finished the bottom is triangular and its been folded lengthwise in half.

“See?” he says, handing it to me.

I can see two parts of the White House with trees on the end.

“Can you believe it?”

“Well, I’ve honestly seen better. My friend can make a swan.”

“The Twin Towers!” he says.

I look again. I guess it does sort of look like two buildings on fire, if you squint.

“The twenty dollar bill has had this design since 1928. You know what that means? They have been planning this since before the World Trade Center existed! And at the highest levels of government!”

His eyes were wide with terror, and his mustache seems to be squirming around on his upper lip like a small animal.

“Wow, that’s pretty crazy,” I say. “Some real illuminati shit. So, like, when’s the last time you went to a doctor?”

“You can’t trust doctors either, Chopin. I’m afraid they are some of the most fiendish conspirators of all.”

“I see, I see. Wow, dude, seems pretty hopeless. So what do you want me to do?”

“At this point, Chopin, I think that there is no hope of preventing their success. Civilization will collapse entirely, in about five years if my calculations are correct. Thus, I have taken it upon myself to begin storing up knowledge for the dark times to come. If I cannot prevent this disaster, at least I can make it easier for future generations to rebuild civilization and regain what was lost. This is what I need you for.”

“Yeah, go on.”

“You see, I am building a shelter beneath this house, a shelter deep underground, where I will store up all of the knowledge, the literature, music, architecture, painting, poetry, all of the science and philosophy, and of course all of our theology and religion, where it will be safe, I hope, when society begins to fall apart. I can’t build it alone, so that’s why I wanted to hire you, as an assistant.”

“So, like, how much are we talking here?”

“Is this a monetary question?”

“Yeah. Cashwise, how much?”

“Well, since I expect money will lose its value in a few years, I am willing to be very generous. How about $50 an hour?”

“I’LL DO IT!” I say. “Let’s start right away!”

* * *

“Okay,” he says, “let me see here. How long did you say the basement is?”

“25 feet and 3 inches.”

“And tell me the width once more?”

“20 feet 8 inches and a quarter.”

“Hmmm. This means, according to my calculations, that we need about sixteen hundred cinderblocks, eight bags of cement (I have the mixer machine already out back), at least half a ton of gravel, and several hundred feet of plastic tubing.”

“Why tubes?”

“My dear Chopin,” Bigote says. “The atmosphere on the surface will be unbreathable. We need to install an atmosphere purification system, to remove toxins and radiation, so we can survive long enough for the earth’s ecosystem to re-balance itself. Trust me, I’ve read several blogs about this.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Why, do you think I’d be so heartless as to leave you to fend for yourself during this cataclysm? The thought of it!”

“And my parents?”

“Well, uh, you see Chopin, space is very limited.”

“Ok, I hope you’re a good cook, then, if I won’t have my mom with me.”

“Have no fear about that. I have been practicing the ancient and noble arts of French and Italian cooking, so that I can teach the survivors how to make poulet cordon bleu and spaghetti—two vital elements of Western culture.”

“Alright, well then, just don’t light the place on fire.”

“No more time for small talk, Chopin. We must attend to business. Let us away to the pick up truck, to purchase these supplies and start construction.”

“Ok, but I’m driving.”

Bigote’s truck is a true piece of shit and leaves a trail of black fumes behind it as it coughs its way to the department store. The whole interior smells like gasoline and burning brake fluid, which pours in through the ventilators, and the seats aren’t even comfortable.

“I bought it used,” he explains. “No paperwork, paid in cash. For the past seventeen years, you see, I have been doing my best to live off the grid. No bank account, no government records, no paperwork, no signatures, nothing. I live invisibly.”

“But isn’t your name on your mailbox?”

“An alias, my good Chopin, an alias. My true name is not Don Bigote.”

“What is it, then?”

“Here we are!” he says, as the Home Depot pops into view.

We jump out, and I pick up one of those big metal trolleys for serious home improvement shopping. Bigote leads the way, his giant legs crawling like a giant spider over the flat parking lot, his mustache fluttering heroically in the wind. He looks ridiculous and I feel embarrassed, but money is money.

We walk through the sliding automatic doors and into the big, spacey interior, that always reminds me of an airport hanger.

“First, I suppose we should get the concrete,” Bigote says, staring down at his list through wire-framed glasses.

“Welcome to Home Depot,” someone says. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, do you—”

Don Bigote looks up at the assistant and freezes. I look at the assistant, too, and recognize him immediately. He’s my classmate Juan López, from Venezuela, a short, dark-haired boy with a nose piercing. Quite good at lacrosse.

“No, sorry, I’m not in need of anything, just browsing, thank you very much…”

Don Bigote turns and bolts down the nearest aisle.

“Yo Juan, you coming tonight?” I say.

“Dunno yet dude.”

“Ok, well see ya around.”

I follow Bigote.

When I find him, he’s leaning against the tires, pale and panting.

“Dude, what’s wrong?”

“Don’t you see!” he sputters. “They’re here! The Mexicans!”

“Who, Juan? He’s not Mexican, dude.”

“That’s what they want you to believe!”

“Who? His parents?”

“Oh, this is bad, Chopin, very bad. If they see what materials I’m buying, they will get suspicious and investigate, and my scheme will be ruined. No, it’s too risky, too risky.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s fine, dude. Juan’s cool, mostly. He did hit a guy in gym class in April. Got suspended.”

“Damn them to hell!” he says, pounding his fist into his palm. “Clever bastards! I will not be defeated so easily!”

And with this, he pulls his revolver out of his holster and starts dashing towards the front door.

What the fuck are you doing?!” I scream, and run after him.

He gets to the end of the aisle, stops, and aims straight at Juan.

“See you in Hell, communists!”

“Wait, wait, wait!” I yell, and tackle him from behind just as the shot rings out.

The bullet goes wild and hits the roof. Meanwhile the two of us slam into a shelf full of electric drills, which comes tumbling down. And then, like in all the movies, the domino effect: one shelf hits another shelf hits another, until the entire store is collapsing. Babies are crying, men and women are running for the exits, the alarm is sounding, red lights and a siren, the sprinkler too, everything is going totally nuts, and the string quartet is still bravely playing.

Finally the last shelf tumbles down, and the place is deathly still. The two of us slowly get to our feet.

What do we do? What do we do? Shit, shit, shit, Bigote will get arrested, and then who will pay me? And what if they arrest me to? Think, think, think.

Wait!

“Freeeee stuff!” I yell. “Get it quick, get it now! Before the cops come!”

The store explodes again, as every customer begins frantically looting, ripping open the cash machines, filling up their arms with everything they can carry, running this way and that, in every direction, and still the string quartet doesn’t stop.

“Now’s our chance! We’ve got to go!” I say to Bigote, and yank him towards the exit.

“But the shelter!”

“No time, dumbass! Let’s get our asses in drive, and skedaddle!”

And we run out into the parking lot, jump into the car, and zoom into the sunset.

(Continued in Chapter 2.)

Review: Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the AutographThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph by Ignatius of Loyola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, has a claim to being among the most influential Spaniards in history.

His beginning was quixotic. The son of a Basque nobleman, his imagination was fed, like the Don’s, on tales of knight errantry and romance. This led to a career in the army, cut short by a canon ball that struck and permanently crippled his leg. His shattered bone had to be set, and then re-set twice, in order to heal properly; and by then his injured leg was too short, and he had to endure months of painful stretching. He walked with a limp the rest of his life.

During his convalescence, deprived of his usual adventure stories, he read about the lives of the saints. This, combined with the pain and immobility, worked a religious conversion in him. When he healed, he resolved to devote his life, no longer to earthly glory and the favors of young Doñas, but to God and the Catholic Church. Thus, eventually, the Society of Jesus was formed, which bears the military stamp of its founder in its dedication, organization, and devotion.

The Jesuits soon acquired a reputation for being excellent educators. Voltaire himself, no friend of anyone in a robe or a hood, received his early education from Jesuits, and always had a good word to say about his instructors and his tutelage. The success of the Jesuits in education is somewhat ironic, considering its founder’s lack of interest in formal schooling. In the words of this edition’s translator, St. Ignatius wrote in “limping Spanish,” since he had “only the elements of an education” and used the Spanish language “with little knowledge of its literary form.”

I should pause to note that this translation, by Louis J. Puhl, a Jesuit himself, is excellent. The language is clear, simple, and idiomatic. To achieve this, he had to depart somewhat radically from the original sentence structure, as well as abandon the sixteenth-century Spanish idioms used by St. Ignatius. He justifies this by noting that the book is meant to be a practical manual, not a work of literature, and I think he is right.

The Spiritual Exercises is meant for a month-long retreat. To that end, the exercises are divided into four weeks. We begin with an examination of our conscience. What sins are we committing? We are invited to compare our many sins with the fallen angels, now demons in hell, who committed only one sin. Then we are instructed to contemplate the sin of the rebellious angels and the first sin of Adam and Even in the Garden. What is the nature of those sins? What makes them tempting? What makes them abhorrent in the eyes of God? After that, we shall vividly imagine the tortures of the damned: the smell of burnt bodies, the screams and cries of the hopelessly sinful, the burning flames and the sea of writhing flesh. (The epic of Dante or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are helpful.) This is the first week.

The schedule is demanding: “The First Exercise will be made at midnight; the Second, immediately on rising in the morning; the Third, before or after Mass, at all events before dinner; the Fourth, about the time of Vespers; the Fifth, an hour before supper.” I don’t know how many hours that would be in total. Elsewhere, he says: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the Spiritual Exercises.” I imagine this total number of hours would increase for somebody on a spiritual retreat.

Before I mention what I liked, I will state my reservations. For me, the fixation of sinfulness and the terrors of hell have always been the most disagreeable aspects of Christianity. I don’t think it is healthy to despise one’s own body, to focus relentlessly on one’s faults, or to act in accordance with a moral code for fear of eternal torment. For somebody, such as myself, who has grown up in the post sexual liberation era, quotes like the following are hard to swallow: “I will consider all the corruption and loathsomeness of my body. I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison.”

In one section, St. Ignatius even recommends hurting oneself for penance: “The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities.” And in another section, he states that all believers must submit unhesitatingly and completely to the church: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Neither of these strike me as a good idea.

All these reservations aside—and if a pagan such as myself can judge—I think that this book can be profitably used by contemporary Christians seeking to have a deeper spiritual experience.

I myself tried to do some of the exercises in this book. This was a challenge. I am not a Christian and my knowledge of the Bible is not as intimate as could be desired. What is more, I did not have an hour and a half every day; the most I was willing to spend was half an hour. In any case, even if I was a practicing Catholic, these exercises are not meant to be used by oneself. My attempt to do the exercise was an experiment to see if I could interpret the mythology of Catholicism in a way that had meaning for my own life. And I am happy to report that, despite some struggles, I made considerable progress in experiencing this grand faith, which I have long admired as an outsider.

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Quotes & Commentary #26: Durant

Quotes & Commentary #26: Durant

A sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship with philosophy; each is the soul of the other.

—Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Durant, though not much of a comedian (and hardly more of a philosopher), did have his funny moments. My favorite of his subtle sarcasms is this delicious pun: “Holland boasted of several ladies who courted in Latin, who could probably conjugate better than they could decline.”

I was reminded of this quote while reading Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In his brief overview of his therapeutic technique, Logotherapy, Frankl mentions that he often uses humor to help his patients deal with neuroses.

The popular cognitive therapist, David D. Burns, also uses humor to help his patients deal with anxiety and depression. One of his techniques for managing fear is to replace a dreadful fantasy with a funny one. This relies on the same principle as the advice commonly given to people with a fear of public speaking: imagine everyone in the crowd in their undergarments. The effect of this is to transform something dreadfully serious and frightening into something absurd, and even fun.

I remember something from a documentary I saw long ago (I wish I could remember which one) that human babies laugh when something apparently dangerous turns out, upon closer inspection, to be harmless. For example: A mom hides her face behind her hands. The baby gets confused and nervous. He can no longer see her face. Is that still his mom? What’s going on? Then, the mom takes her hands away, revealing a silly smile. The baby giggles with delight. It was mommy all along!

The reason why humor is effective in dealing with anxiety relies, I think, on this same mechanism. When we manage to see the humor in our situation, we see it from a new point of view, a new perspective in which our problems, which looked terrible from up close, now look silly and harmless.

In a way, to find something humorous, we must see the situation from a greater distance. Instead of getting absorbed in a problem, letting its shape occupy our whole field of vision, we place the problem in a landscape and thus contextualize it. When we do this, often we find ourselves laughing, because the problem, which before seemed so huge, is really small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s a recent example. A book review I wrote, of which I am fairly proud, was somehow deleted off Goodreads. At first I got very annoyed and upset. I had put so much effort into writing it! And I lost all the likes and comments! Then, with a smile, I realized that it is a bit absurd to get worked up about an internet book review. People are struggling to find jobs, managing chronic diseases—and for Pete’s sake Trump is president! My lost book review was nothing to get frustrated about.

As Durant points out, it is this quality of humor—seeing the part within the context of the whole—that most approaches philosophy. Durant does not, of course, mean “philosophy” in the strict, modern sense of the word (the subject that deals with problems of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so forth). He means, rather, philosophy in its classic sense, as a method of regulating one’s life and thoughts in order to be more virtuous and happy. Nowadays, instead of philosophy, we have therapy and self-help books to aid us in this quest. But whatever we decide to call the art of life, I think most of us can agree that humor plays no small part in it.

Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a teacher in the philosophy department of my school. I asked if there were any Spanish philosophers she would recommend. She mentioned a couple names, but then she added: “You know, the most profound Spanish philosophy cannot be found in any philosophy book. It’s in Don Quixote.”

I was struck by this comment, because Unamuno, who I just finished reading, had the same opinion. And I can’t help agreeing. All profound comedy—and there is no comedy no more profound than Don Quixote—necessarily carries with it a profound philosophy. I do not mean by this that you can extract from Cervantes anything similar to Kant’s ethics; only that great comedy requires an ability to see things as they really are, within the context of the whole, and to transmit this vision with punch and savor.

The comedian alive who, in my opinion, comes closest to this quixotic ideal is Louis C.K. His comedy is distinctive for its emphasis on self-mockery. Most often he uses himself as the butt of his jokes. But his comedy is saved from narcissism because, despite his wealth and fame, he convincingly adopts an everyman persona. Whenever he makes fun of himself he is making fun of you, because inevitably you think the same thoughts and do the same things. But his comedy isn’t threatening because, however denigrating he can be, everyone in the audience is all in it together.

This ability to make fun of yourself is one of the qualities I value most highly. It saves you from being arrogant, condescending, and over-serious. It allows you to be humorous without picking on other people. Self-mockery is also, I think, an excellent antidote to many of life’s petty troubles (like deleted book reviews). If you can take a step back from yourself, and honestly see your faults, your pettiness, and your absurdities—not with bitterness but with forgiving humor—then you will be able to see your successes and your failures with the gentle irony that life, a thoroughly silly thing, so richly deserves.