“A thought will color a world for us. –Theodore Dreiser


Norris
For nearly all of my adult life, I’ve read little fiction because I wanted to further my learning, and I equated learning with non-fiction. It has since become clear to me that there are different kinds of learning, and that both the objective and the subjective have their place. I started my foray into fiction with Westerns but, finding them to be canned and superficial, I returned to nonfiction. After breaking my back in November, I could do little but read, so I finished maybe ten books on houseplants, most of which I enjoyed very much. I then read a biography of John Paul Jones (a naval hero from the American Revolution) and several books on existentialism, but the latter left me so depressed (the moreso when I quit taking the narcotic Fentanyl) that I decided to try fiction again as an escape. I first read Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which I so enjoyed that I read it again despite its length. My next book was Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, which I followed with another Lewis book, Babbitt. Then came Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.

The Lewis and Dreiser books were of a genre called naturalism (to distinguish them from the romantic works of the preceding era) and were set in America between the 1880s and the 1920s. Upon deciding that I preferred this genre, era, and locale, over any other that I could think of, I decided to confine my future reading to it. With that in mind, I read Dreiser’s The Bulwark, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, W.E.B. Dubois’ The Silver Fleece, and Frank Norris’ The Octopus.
Dreiser

The Octopus was my favorite partly because I could scarcely believe that Norris possessed such depth of understanding while still in his twenties. Then I learned that Dreiser was in his twenties when he wrote Sister Carrie; Fitzgerald was in his when he wrote The Great Gatsby; and Sinclair Lewis was in his thirties when he wrote Main Street and Babbitt, but none of these books present such intimately detailed portrayals of so many people. That said, George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie was the most memorable character in any book I’ve ever read, and it was he who led me to conclude that fictional characters are superior to biographical characters in terms of psychological depth. For instance, the biographer of John Paul Jones attempted to psychoanalyze his subject, but because I didn’t know if he was right, I found his portrayal distracting, a problem that I couldn’t have with a fictional character.

Lewis
My main problem with The Octopus was that I found it so depressing that, just as I had turned to fiction as an escape from the bleakness of existentialism, I now needed an escape from my latest fictional work, so I’m reading another novel, Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, which is about a self-aggrandizing Baptist clergyman. Because I’ve read other works that started out light and ended up heavy, I fear what is to come, but so far it’s hilarious, although few people found it that way in 1927. Here’s a portion of what one website says*:

“During his research for his next novel, Elmer Gantry…Lewis would visit various churches in Kansas City each Sunday. At one service, the atheist Lewis challenged God from a fundamentalist pulpit to strike him down within ten minutes if He existed. The quote made the newspapers and Lewis remained safe from lightning but not the fury of the religious community. Elmer Gantry was published in 1927 and immediately banned in Boston. ‘There was one good pastor in California who upon reading my Elmer Gantry desired to lead a mob and lynch me, while another holy man in the state of Maine wondered if there was no respectable and righteous way of putting me in jail.’ The novel was the bestseller of 1927….”

Du Bois
(Because every book I've listed was critical in one way or another of the American status quo, they all made one or more groups unhappy. For example, Dreiser's own publishing house tried to suppress Sister Carrie because it offended both capitalists and moralists by portraying a woman whose only escape from dire poverty was to use men for their money. This suppression caused Dreiser to become suicidal and to have a nervous breakdown.)

...I'm also enjoying Elmer Gantry because it describes my childhood:

“The church provided his only oratory, except for campaign speeches by politicians…it provided all his painting and sculpture… From the church came all his profounder philosophy. In Bible stories, in the words of the great hymns, in the anecdotes which the various preachers quoted, he had his only knowledge of literature… He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.”

Fitzgerald

I greatly prefer old books because I don’t want to waste my time sifting through the latest bestsellers, none of which have shown themselves to have lasting merit. I also want to read books by authors who lived in the place and era about which I’m interested rather than those who wrote about them secondhand. The downside of reading dead people’s works is that I come to regard them as friends so I find myself grieving that they are dead. You probably won’t meet many people who cried over the death of Thoreau 125 years after his passing, but I was one of them. I still sorrow that he died so young, so you can imagine my grief for Frank Norris who died at age 32 of a gangrenous bowel brought on by a burst appendix. 


Peggy suggested that I entitle this "Beauty and the Beast"


I had a few astonishing thoughts after I wrote my last post. One is that it was all true, and the second was that Peggy’s openness to experimentation—and my reaction to it—makes us seem young and adventurous. The third is that it shows that Peggy and I still have a loving relationship. Even so...

You might think that people would adjust to one another after 43-years, yet our life together is often difficult, although we’re as committed as any couple can be. After all, we’ve survived drugs, 20 years in an open relationship, two years in a group marriage, me getting busted for shoplifting, and periods when my mental state go pretty bizarre. Yet, I was never for a moment not committed to her, and I never really imagined that she would leave me.

As long as you have faith in your partner’s basic goodness and in her love for you, you can survive almost anything, and so we have. People can look at various problems we’ve had and say that, gee, such and such sure was stupid, or that must have been hard, or I can’t believe Peggy put up with you (people are rarely incredulous that I put up with her), yet here we are, together and in love after 43 years, and how many people can say that, people who are married to, presumably, normal people, and who are presumably normal themselves, with both being dedicated to some theoretically normal life in which they are: monogamous; sane; nominally theistic; in good health; and have adequate money, 2.3 children, a dog, a cat, a nice house in the suburbs, and no legal hassles? I would guess that many couples in long-term marriages have had it easier, but I think there are probably a lot more who settled for staying together without remaining close. Neither of us could stand that, and this has forced us to work things out, even when it meant beating our heads against the same wall for a decade or two.

The older we get, the more we know other couples who have also been together for a long time, but I think most of us remember an era when we knew a lot of couples who divorced. As sad as that was, and as stupid as their behavior sometimes seemed, I found it interesting, so I actually miss it in a way. The older I get, the more the drama in my life comes from within in the way of physical problems and limitations, so I wax nostalgic for those days when I got to witness a lot more of other people’s external dramas and a lot fewer of my internal ones.

What Peggy's doing now that she's retired



Peggy gets frequent migraines, and marijuana helps migraines, but Peggy has been unwilling to use marijuana because she's a nurse, and nurses get into big trouble if they’re caught doing illegal drugs. Twelve hours after Peggy retired, she got a migraine and asked me for some marijuana. I rarely use it anymore because its effect on me had gotten way too weird, but I still have some marijuana cookies on hand along with a few buds. I’m proud to say that I made these cookie, and although they’re small, one-quarter is enough to put me at risk for hallucinations, so I only gave Peggy a crumb about the size of 1/24th of one cookie, and that was enough to make her migraine go away completely. She didn’t get high, but she hadn’t asked to get high, and I would never presume to trick someone into taking a bigger dose of a drug than they asked for, and I especially wouldn’t do it to Peggy because she’s afraid of becoming insane like a few others in her family. I would even say that she’s really afraid. The following is from my journal for October 2, 2000:

“Peggy and I were staying at a motel on the coast a few years ago. It was dark, and she was looking out over the ocean while I was in the bathroom. Suddenly she yelled, “Come quickly and see the pretty lights on the water.” I went quickly, but the lights had disappeared. The same thing happened a second time, and then a third. At that point, Peggy looked at me with an expression of fear and resignation and said, ‘I am losing my mind.’ I laughed, but she said she wasn’t joking. I decided to postpone whatever it was that I was doing in the bathroom and stay with her until the lights could be explained. It turned out that the moon, which was out of sight behind the motel, was coming and going behind some clouds and creating a truly beautiful light display upon the breaking waves.”

While on drugs, I’ve had hallucinations of demons, heavy metal music coming from toilets, my body levitating, angels flying above my head, and so forth without ever once thinking that I was going insane. Even so, I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to give Peggy a whopping dose of marijuana simply because Peggy has often said, “I don’t believe pot would get me high,” as if she's a bad-ass and I'm some kind of a wimp. As it was, we did take a hit together about an hour after she ate her cookie crumb, and while the hit got me completely wasted, it did nothing for her beyond the usual first-timer coughing fit. This in no way diminished my complete confidence that enough marijuana would land anybody on her ass.

All this occurred two days before I was to to go to the hospital—the one from which Peggy just retired—for my colonoscopy, and she was to be my designated driver. Ninety minutes before we’re to leave, she gets another migraine, and I give her another cookie crumb. I think it might it might be a little bigger than the first crumb, but since she didn’t get high off the first crumb plus a hit, I’m not too worried, forgetting that it’s not unusual for a person to not get high the first time they use pot. So, Peggy eats her crumb; her migraine goes away; and we leave for the hospital with her driving. Six blocks from home on a street she’s driven thousands of times over the last quarter of a century, Peggy says fearfully, “I have no idea where I am.” “Okie doakie, Peggy, maybe you should pull over and let me drive,” and we trade places. For her next trick, Peggy announces that there’s a cat in the car, but the cat turns out to be her purse.


So, here we are on our way to the hospital with me wondering how we’re going to get home, and whether Peggy is going to run amuck while I’m having my colonoscopy. I think it might be fun to scream, “Oh, my god, you’re losing your mind! You’re going to be just like your mother,” but then I realize how inconvenient for me it would be if she became hysterical, so I decide against it. I do suggest that, while I’m having my colonoscopy, she go visit her old buddies in labor and delivery and tell them how much she’s enjoying retirement.

By the time we reach the hospital, we're running a little late, so Peggy offers to park the car while I go in. “Are you sure?” I ask, and she says she is, so I let her, but not without trepidation, knowing as I do how fast a person’s perceptions and abilities can change while tripping. After an appropriate amount of time, Peggy joins me and purports herself normally (that is if you count cringing visibly when a brand new nurse fails twice to start my IV), although she says she’s high. I’m impressed because for much of my life, I found it impossible to act straight when I was high, and if I tried, I would tremble, violently, completely lose the ability to talk, and sometimes hallucinate. I have since learned to feign normalcy, but it took a lot of years and a lot of pot to reach Peggy's level. I just hope she can stay there because marijuana is a hell of a lot safer and cheaper than her Big Pharma medicine.