Humor, god and gullibility

Negro and I were walking along the boardwalk that parallels Rio’s Copacabana beach . It was evening and as we walked he once again avoided whatever subject I was trying to introduce and instead started to once again tell the story of fire . This situation will be familiar many of his friends. He could be so “mono-thematic”; when he was trying to make a point he would return to it over and over again. Each new encounter or situation would become a pretext to review the point again. He never seemed to get bored. Each time he explored the theme with the same energy and enthusiasm as the first time. No doubt some of the listeners, after participating in 2, 3 or a half-dozen similar conversations would get bored, thinking they’d heard him go through it all already. I like to think, however, that most of us who had the privilege of spending time with him knew enough to at least try to stay alert, to re-engage with the subject matter and try to see it with fresh eyes – as he did. It’s more than once that I kicked myself for tuning out when I thought there was nothing more to hear and only much later discovering I’d missed something important.

So we were walking along and he started explaining this whole story – again – then he started to draw conclusions that I had neither heard from him earlier nor thought of myself. But the conclusions now seemed abundantly clear. I started to realize to my great embarrassment that in a series of conversations over the last 6 months he had given me all the clues I needed to understand where he was going with this idea. Now he was now spelling it out for me. How had I missed it? How had we all missed it? It was so clear and he’d laid out all the pieces and talked about each one of them. He’d done everything but put them together. I felt so dense. He’d waited patiently for one of us to think it through. None of us did. I realized that I’d seen this happen on numerous other occasions where he’d explained all the elements of the puzzle and hoped someone of us would join in on thinking it out. It happened sometimes. Pretty rarely though – we were not exceptionally lazy but it sure seemed that we too often waited to be spoon-fed wisdom.

This time I commented on that, not on the subject he was explaining but rather how I felt realizing he’d given me all I needed to figure it out myself and I still hadn’t got it. Six months later he was still explaining the punchline . So I said something: How was it possible that he’d worked this out from scratch and that even with his help, his cajoling, his explanations and dropped clues, I hadn’t been able to figure out the implications for myself?

It was like the many times I’d tried to teach myself calculus. I figured Newton had invented it (or Leibniz depending on whom you believe) so I should at least be able to learn it. He had a problem he needed to solve and he couldn’t so he invented the tool he needed to solve it. That tool was calculus. Designing that instrument was an astounding accomplishment. All I had to do was head out on the super highway that had evolved from the trail he had blazed. Pretty straightforward, especially since we now had teachers who not only understood the ins and outs of the math, but also specialized in transmitting that knowledge: we have courses, books … the complete moron’s guide to the calculus and so on. Makes sense, right? I thought so, but I was wrong.

The sad truth seemed inescapable. He’d invented calculus but I couldn’t even learn it. Oh well. It was very much the same sensation I was now feeling as we walked along so near the water’s edge.

Negro responded to my confession in an unexpected way. He turned to me and almost brought me to tears as he talked about the unique quality each one brings to the mix, about how each of us has our own point of view, a unique perspective, a particular way of understanding. The emotion in his voice was palpable as he insisted that this is the beauty of it all, how each of us has something of value to contribute that no one else can. The welling up in my eyes was disrupted by his next apparently cynical quip that left me almost doubled over with laughter.

That was typical. If you spent time with Silo then you know he was a master of many things – including ensuring that no one’s head got too big, or that no one lost their sense of proportion, or forgot to laugh. After producing an explosion of sublime emotion he would almost invariably deflate the situation by producing a situation, or telling a joke, or in some other way reminding you of the less “elevated” aspects of our experience.

I had a memorable encounter with this method/tendency of his the first time I stayed at his home in Chacras . Back then this tranquil community still felt like a small rural town, far from the “big city” of Mendoza; the last time I was there with him a lot of tension had developed between the rich “newcomers” who had moved to Chacras and environs seeking a more pastoral existence and the “criollas” – the native born – who felt their tranquil lives were being overturned by this invasion of city slickers.

The conversation (and laughter) had been going non-stop since he picked me up at the airport earlier that day. Among the traditions or customs that his intimates knew him for were things like his insistence on personally picking up and seeing his guests off (which involved waiting until they had gone to their gate) and paying for the seemingly endless coffees, teas, meals, ice creams (a subject that, as you will see, appears here often), and other treats. In all of this there was not the slightest feel of showiness or artificiality. On the contrary it felt natural and spontaneous, if a little unusual – being with him was a lesson in genuine courtesy and kindness.

Mendoza airport interior
Mendoza airport landing

This, my first time as a guest in his home, was in many ways to set the pattern for my subsequent visits over the years. These would usually begin with my finding him waiting patiently inside Mendoza’s small airport and proceed with him driving whatever car (often old, always small) from there to home. The conversation would begin after the first welcoming hug (the lightest and gentlest of brotherly greetings; warm but neither demanding nor lingering) and after a brief stop to drop off luggage, say hello to Ana or the kids, the laughter and talk would continue as I accompanied him on whatever errands he was running. These activities ranged from the mundane ones, like taking the car to the mechanic, to others that struck me at least as extraordinary, like going on a hunt from shop to shop seeking out a particular electronic component that he needed for the latest iteration of his cybernetic turtle .

All of this activity was scattered through with what to the naïve observer might have seemed an aimless meandering along a circuit of bars, cafes, visits, and conversations. Typically we returned to his home quite late – one more of his personal, and much honoured customs. We had gone for dinner earlier, around 11 p.m. – not some personal eccentricity, this was (and probably still is) the custom in those parts. On this occasion we went to a “typical” restaurant quite far out in the countryside; it was a choice he had made knowing it would please his guest with its “authentic”asado. We had eaten in rustic luxury, then driven back to Chacras for an ice cream . Then to Mendoza for a penultimate coffee, and finally all the way back to Chacras.

Ana had joined us for the ice cream part of our expedition. No one who met her even briefly would take Ana Luisa Cremaschi as simply being Mrs. Rodriguez, or even Mrs. Silo. We had first become friends in Corfu. While I was not the only one of our group who spoke no Spanish, she was one of the only older “members” who was willing or able to speak English. That helped cement my heartfelt admiration of her. The admiration came easily – she was a lifesaver: intelligent, tough minded, beautiful, and funny.

I always felt that their house was, above everything else, comfortable – not in a luxurious sense, far from it – but in the most simple, functional way, possessed of the ease and familiarity of a well-worn pair of shoes. Negro’s study, along with everything else in his home, seemed to share in that lack of pretence that was so integral a part of him and his family.

As latest night passed into earliest morning, we were still there talking (at this point I don’t think I need to add laughing) in his study, our conversation covered subjects ranging from politics, to the paranormal, from psychology to theology, old movies, new movies, all kinds of social and personal incidents and accidents, not to mention magic. It was a time when I was always ready and willing to perform a trick with coins, cards, or cigarettes (then still commonly found objects), a demonstration of mind reading or a feat of prestidigitation, and Negro was a huge fan of conjuring in all its forms.

Off and on through the evening I would become all too focused on where I was, and whom I was with; the awareness of the incredibly privileged situation I was in brought with it in succession, an attempt that was so overblown to turn self-consciousness into consciousness of self, or an equally ludicrous attempt to show that I was at ease. This latter involved, if I recall correctly, the kind of sprawling on the furniture in spontaneous asanas similar to those might be assumed by a young man sprawled in front of the TV. Not quite a dog pissing on the fire hydrant to say this is my home turf but not too far from that either. Through all of this I was struggling – trying to find a way to be attentive but not uptight, to enter increasingly in a state of consciousness-of-self but without forcing anything, never a simple task for me, the situation was made much almost impossible by factors that the sympathetic reader will not find it difficult to understand.

At some point I noticed that the conversation had changed, and so had the tone of Silo’s voice as well as my internal state. Did you notice, I switched from calling my friend Negro to something less informal, Silo. And that corresponds more or less to my thoughts at the moment, unsure of whether the awe I felt was because of the transformation I was witnessing or because of the being that stood suddenly transformed before me. I remember being acutely aware of myself, my surroundings, and this extraordinary situation. I thought something like: “Is this possible? …he’s gone from being my pal Negro to being Silo… I’m getting my own private harangue …this is the voice they must have heard at Punta de Vacas when he spoke of the Healing of Suffering

I remember all of this in great detail and I believe with great precision; I remember everything but exactly what he said. I do know that it was about meaning and the possibility of transformation for individuals and the species. In any case the best was yet to come. When suddenly he turned to me and with an extraordinary quality to his voice he said: “…and can a man say these things and not believe in God…”

“Fuck me! Now Silo’s going to tell me he believes in God!”

Holding my gaze he continued after a dramatic pause “… Sure. Why not? And if there is a God he’s probably too busy steering the universe to have anything to do with us…”

I had been lifted into the sublime and dropped back down firmly to earth. A game, a joke, and reminder and more – it was perhaps the first, but definitely far from the last time I’d see this kind of manifestation of his particular sense of humour.

Years later Silo would say to me in another context, “You used to be so gullible.”

I guess if I was paranoid I would have thought that a really good way to make me think I wasn’t being gullible now.