The bad news is I’ve had a good month. As the child of an ever-suffering mother and a member of an ever-suffering people, I am not merely uncomfortable with happiness, I am tortured by it. The worst thing that can happen to me is the best thing that can happen to me, and the best thing that can happen to me is the worst thing that can happen to me.
If Publishers Clearing House ever knocks on my door with an oversized check, it’ll make the worst Super Bowl commercial ever:
THEMMr. S. Auslander?
THEMYou’ve just won a million dollars!
Hold on ME as I look at the check and think I’m undeserving. Others need it more than I. Like my mother. Oh, her endless suffering! And what about my sister and her congregation of children? You know how much they could use the money? Then there’s Darfur, and the Holocaust, of course. Didn’t the liberators find survivors eating worms? And here I am getting a million dollars while porno downloads upstairs and my wife and son are in the den watching Thomas the Tank Engine?
THEY hand ME the check.
I take a gun and blow my head off.
CUT TO: LOGO, TAGLINE:
VOICE-OVER:It’s all about winning!
Then, back to the game.
No news is good news, but good news is bad news; my psychiatrist has always been far more concerned about my successes than he has been about my failures. I sat down in his office a few weeks ago, just after an unfortunate string of fortunate events. I had completed my manuscript, my editors, here and abroad, were pleased with the results, I had read essays on a number of national radio programs, I had a story published in a prominent magazine. I was a wreck.
“We’ve been through this before,” said my shrink.
“I know,” I said.
“Every time you’re happy…” he said, waiting for me to finish.
“I’m unhappy,” I said.
He nodded. I stared at my shoes.
“You could try failing more,” he said.
“Nah,” I said. “I went for pot instead.”
I haven’t smoked pot in a long time. My shrink pursed his lips, fought back a frown, took out his pen and wrote something on his chart.
Damn right, I thought.
If you’re going to go off the rails, you might as well go far enough off to warrant a troubled notation on your psychiatric chart.
* * *
One Purim, a rabbi of mine got so drunk that another student and I had to help him stumble back home.
“Hashem created a beautiful world,” he said to us.
We nodded, trying to steer him away from the cliff at the edge of the road.
“But He made one mistake,” he continued. “One very, very bad mistake.”
I could name 20 without having to think too hard, so I wondered which one the rabbi had in mind.
“It’s not right,” he said, “that you can’t have a cigarette after cholent on Saturday afternoon.”
He shook his head sadly.
“It’s a real kasha,” he said.
A kasha is a difficult question.
I feel the same way about pot. It grows from the ground, it’s cheap, it makes me laugh and, when I watch Telemundo stoned, I’m pretty sure I understand what they’re saying. But it’s not right that everything I write while stoned isn’t, the following morning, as brilliant as it seemed to be the night before. And it isn’t right that the following afternoon I can’t write at all.
It’s a real fucking kasha.
* * *
I’ve been setting off alarms. Everywhere I go lately, I set off security alarms—pharmacies, bookstores, groceries. It doesn’t matter what I’m carrying—it happened again this morning and I wasn’t even carrying my wallet. Maybe it was something I ate. Maybe it’s some sort of bio-magnetic something or other inside me. Maybe I’m just bad.
* * *
“I’m being self-destructive,” I told my wife. She’s not a smoker, but sometimes we like to get a little happy and go for long hikes. She knew I hadn’t been writing, and she knew I had been smoking, she just didn’t know why.
“I had some success,” I explained. “It hasn’t been easy.”
We spoke about it for a while. For me, I explained, it’s not so much why bad things happen to good people, but why good things happen to me at all. I feel guilty when they do, and do whatever I can to make sure that they stop. I wondered if this had to do with my parents or a larger narrative—the single narrative I spent my life learning, that of a people on the outside, suffering adversity after adversity, meeting enemy after enemy. “Why me?” I wonder when joy fills my heart. “Why not them?” Maybe three generations from now, if the killing in Darfur ever comes to end, the grandchildren of those who died today will similarly feel uncomfortable with their comfort. Someone heads over to the Best Buy in downtown Geneina, gets himself a 40-inch flat-screen and spends the rest of the week feeling like crap.
“Why me?” he’ll wonder.
“Why not them?”
“And why does my shrink always wait until just after I’ve bought an eighth to convince me I need to stop?”
It’s a kasha.