Tag Archives: Perspective

On “Bullet in the Brain” – A Story from Shavuot


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By Michael Fallon

It was three in the morning at Beit T’Shuvah on Shavuot when I started reading aloud the story “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, eager to share it with those members of the audience hardy enough to stay up that long. There were several people dead asleep on the couches in front of me, but if Wolff’s sharp, funny and startling story didn’t wake them up, at least it would entertain and inspire those still alert.

“Bullet in the Brain” is the story of a man standing in line at the bank for the last minutes of his life. Anders is a book critic, and his cutting and supercilious remarks are interrupted by two bank robbers who take the customers hostage. Anders is so superior and oblivious to the danger he faces that he ends up repeatedly insulting one of the robbers, who shoots him in the head.

The rest of the story concerns the last memory to which Anders flashes back as the bullet travels through his brain. Wolff makes clear Anders was not always a joyless, judgmental curmudgeon, but started out with a love of words, of language, that curdled into a desperate infatuation with his own vitriol.

The story recalls what Anders doesn’t, reeling backwards through his life, like a time-lapse film in reverse: through the years of disappointment with his dull wife and indifferent daughter, his love and affection toward that same daughter when she was a child, the honest horror with which he reacts to a tragedy he witnesses shortly after her birth, the pang of jealously he feels at a colleague’s first published work, and finally his respect toward its worthiness, long before he came to “regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread.”

Finally we come to the moment he does remember: on a baseball field, in the waning daylight, when he was captivated by what a boy from Mississippi said when asked what position he wanted to play: “‘Shortstop,’ the boy says. ‘Short’s the best position they is.’ …Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.”

Anders leaves this world basking in a memory of his youth, of a time when he stood in a baseball field smacking his “sweat-blackened glove and chant(ing), They is, they is, they is.”

I had timed the story out at 9 and ½ minutes, but by the time I finished reading it, I had left only a couple minutes of my allotted time, and so was unable, until this blog, to share my thoughts on this trenchant work, and some of the questions it raises.

Why is Anders so cavalier about the lethal threat he faces? Does Anders, on some level, want to end his life? Or maybe the scene is simply unreal to Anders, for whom everything has begun “to remind him of something else.” He reacts to the unfolding bank robbery as if it were in a movie, and even compares it to “The Killers” – a movie, and a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Only when he is eye to eye with one of the robbers, and can smell the man’s breath, does the situation grow real for him.

Is there an aspect to Anders to which we can relate? Do we never judge people instantaneously, according to preconceptions about their class, how they look, dress, sound, their accent, their tattoos, or lack of tattoos?

Do we take, if you will, everybody’s inventory? When I see a new client at BTS, do I think “Ah, another jerk-off?” Or do I see a human being, frightened, uncertain, defensive, hopeful, wounded…but nonetheless a child of God?

As we experience life, weather harsh experience, compromise and loss, must we become jaded and bored?
Where are we in that trajectory from innocence to fatigue, from awe to cynicism, from tolerance to indifference, disdain and intolerance?

A saying credited to the Talmudist Yisreol Salanter states that most people “worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.”

Must we grow tired of life? Become childish: petulant, stubborn, entitled? Or can we remain child-like? Is there a way for us to see the world with new eyes every day, with a sense of wonder and possibility?

I think they is.

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TGIF? Maybe We Should Thank God on Mondays as Well as Fridays


TGIM: Thank God It’s Monday!

By M. Alexander

Growing up, I hated Mondays.  I hated school. I hated the days I had to go to school, come home and do homework, go to bed early so that I could wake up the next morning for a new day of monotony.  All week, I looked forward to the weekend—a time with no responsibility, a time to watch television, a time to do nothing.

Later in life, when I was using heroin, all days were the same.  It did not matter whether it was Saturday or Monday.  If I had dope, it was a good day.  If I didn’t, it was a bad day.

My perception of each day’s merits changed yet again when I first got to Beit T’Shuvah. I began to dread the weekend.  Nobody was here.  They were with their girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives, at the beach or in the mountains.  Monday would come and I would again be occupied by groups and comforted by friends.

Now that I have a job and a girlfriend, I again look forward to the weekend.  I get to unwind from my job. I get to read. I get to watch movies. I get to relax.

There is nothing wrong with looking forward to the weekend.  But why do I now dread Mondays and dislike Tuesdays?  Why am I annoyed by Wednesdays and frustrated by Thursdays? Monday never did anything to me. Tuesday never stabbed me in the back.  Wednesday never talked trash to me.  Thursday never slept with my wife.

In order to live a happy, healthy, and productive life, I need to learn to look forward to each day, to find the unique quality present in each hour.  I need to stop escaping to a specific time frame—thinking it will all be better in a few days.   Today is a good day if I make it a good day.

Monday morning, I need to shift my perception, looking forward to the new week as an opportunity for growth, as a chance to add motivation to my purpose and invigorate my passion with a newfound vitality.  Tuesday, I will do the work.  Wednesday, I will make sure that my work is fresh and exciting.  Thursday, I will help another person with something they are struggling with, something that I am in a unique position to help them with.  Friday, I will look at what I’ve done, finish what needs to be finished, and I will TGIF, making sure that three days later, I don’t forget to TGIM.

So I challenge you: How do you make today special?  How do you look forward to the present?

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