top of page

from the desk of Murray J. Penglass...

Murray J. Penglass

Before I was a Chicago guy, I was a Milwaukee guy. That was a (very) long time ago, but I still say “back home” and mean Milwaukee. The last time I was back home, I went by Whistler’s, which has been my favorite local bar for more decades than I’ll disclose.

It’s the bar where I learned how to be in bars, and it’s just the same as ever.

The main area is half a stair flight down from the street entrance. The jukebox is still sending R.E.M. songs through the clatter of pool and darts and ambient chatter, and the place still smells like bourbon and varnish.

So this last time dropping by, I went on down to the main area and settled on a stool at the bar and ordered myself a Makers. And some time later a young man, somewhere in his mid-thirties, took the seat beside me. He had an air of recent travel, so I asked him where he’d been.

“Nepal,” he said.

His stubble was mostly dark, but flecked gray. His eyes were gray-blue and cool.

I told him that back in my twenties, I’d spent some time in Kathmandu and had taken rail trips north to the Himalayas. And it turned out that this fellow, who went by Jonathan, had been doing much the same. So we traded images and impressions of Kathmandu, and I learned a few things about what’s changed and what hasn’t.

I asked him whether folks these days – ex-pats and anglophones – talk about the Blue Man of the Himalayas.

He exhaled in an embarrassed way, even disguising a wince. I’d made a faux pas, but I wasn’t sure why, so I leaned in a little and asked Jonathan with my eyes to say more.

His eyes flicked between mine and the lip of his pint. He sort of stammered that nowadays people consider that story a colonialistic fantasy of Nepali exoticism, a fable of recondite Eastern wisdom that fetishizes otherness from a position of naïve credulity and unconscious Western condescension.

Well, that’s all well and good, I said, except that the rumor is not just a legend. For I myself encountered the Blue Man of the Himalayas.

He laughed uncomfortably. I laughed too, but then I told him my story.

I once took a train out of Kathmandu and got off at some nowhere stop, a place with a few shacks and purple chickens bopping and pecking ’round the scrub. I planned to continue further north, but I didn’t make it back in time from my walk, and was left behind.

So I thought I’d just walk south and eventually get home, but it didn't work like that: instead, I got completely lost, and wound up in a rocky field with great big uprisings, almost like a mini mountain range. As night came on, it got windy and cold, and I took refuge in a cave some four or five feet above the ground.

When I woke up, he was there, naked and bearded and floating in full lotus. I joined him in the posture and we meditated together. After a while, I was staring into his eyes, without any self-consciousness. The cave melted away and I was only in space. I felt his presence everywhere, but I did not see him. When I blinked and came back to the cave, he was not there.

But his presence had gone into me: it had gone into my blood and my bones and become part of me, and ever since, I have carried him with me.

Well, I could tell Jonathan didn’t believe me, but that was alright. He picked up a round and we chatted a bit more, and then he told me he had to be going, so we shook hands and he was off.

There was something about the guy. Even though he thought I was full of it, and was sure that the tale of the Blue Man was nothing but colonialist kitsch, he had this burning core of seriousness that I was struck by. And I’ve thought of him several times since.

A couple days later, I was walking in my neighborhood, and saw a young guy – 26, 27 – standing under a tree. Looking up from his phone, he caught my gaze, and I saw in his eyes that he was just like Jonathan, with a burning energy at his core. I nodded at him, and he returned my nod exactly in time.

From there, I walked downtown and went into a used bookstore. In the art section, the spine of a book on Warhol and Lichtenstein and Rosenquist caught my eye. I took the thing down from the shelves — it was a big old coffee-table display book — and lugged it over to a bench in a nook. I rudely set the book on one side of the bench, where it occupied enough space for a second customer, and took the other side for myself, and set to flipping the pages.

Then I got to remembering how decades earlier, I had returned stateside after my sojourn in Nepal and become aware of pop art — of the very guys in the book I was browsing. At first, their work had just made me ask, “What is this? And what's supposed to make it different from the pop iconography it mimics or repurposes?”

I never exactly found an answer to those questions, but somehow I got hooked, anyway. I kept coming back to those guys. I also came to love Guston and Rauschenberg and Marden, but I was most piqued by the guys whose work was closest to the pop source. I never did quite figure out what, but something about it compelled me. And my question went from being, “Why are they repurposing these junky, tawdry, commercial images?,” to “What are these images that I am calling junky and commercial and tawdry?”

To find out, I started reading comic books, where my interest followed a similar trajectory: skepticism giving way to an inexplicable, haunting wish to keep coming back. For a year or two, I read Doctor Strange and Mister Miracle, The Forever People and Black Panther.

But Iron Fist killed my comic-book habit. I picked up two or three issues, and was appalled. Pancake drawings of characters spouting jibber-jabber were meant to convey an archetypal initiation into Eastern mystic understanding, but the gimcrack narrative conflicts and child-holding-doll dialogue reduced grandeur to insipidity. And I suddenly thought of my encounter with the Blue Man of the Himalayas and felt a pang of fear that if I consumed mass commercial dreams too indiscriminately, I would lose my own sense of the flavor of things, and would only perceive the most commonly used ingredients in popular recipes.

And so I became warier of mass commercial entertainment, and instead set my compass inward, to my own mind — or if outward, then only to my wisest and most original guides, the ones who could help me perceive my own perceptions more sharply. I did this so that as a writer I would have the fineness of attunement to capture the things I most treasure.

But I don’t think any writer can exactly capture the subjectively known quality of an experience; how can words capture the sensation of a kiss — the way certain light made you feel when you were a child — the mood at the table on the night when dinner came out hours late but the stars above were shining so exquisitely? It is more what you leave out than in. It is just like looking at someone and having something unsaid pass between you. The reader must meet you at the destination, and recognize your unspoken intention — a charge that passes back and forth between you and the reader. Hello, reader.

Murray's Desk
Murray's Desk
Table of Contents
bottom of page