The Joy of Pets

Wendy in the back of Walt’s Land Rover, 1988
I grew up with dogs and cats, but my parents didn’t have a fenced-yard, so most of the dogs were killed by cars either because they wandered into the road or because they liked to chase them. Some were killed outright, some lingered, and one dog survived but half his face was gone. My parents were typical country people in that they wouldn’t take a dog or cat to a vet because dogs and cats were free and because they weren’t seen as pets but yappers. When one of my many dogs named Sassy was hit by a car, he came running into the yard, collapsed into my arms, and gazed into my eyes until he died. My father was very moved by this, but not enough to build a fence.

Mike was my first dog, and he was old when I was born. He was such a devoted car chaser that the mailman had run over him several times. The only thing I remember about Mike was him lying on the ground and flapping his tail while I peed on him. I considered this so funny that I could barely pee for laughing, which is probably why I remember it. As tolerant as he was of me, Mike would threaten any stranger who got near me, and this allowed my Mother to let me play outside my family’s country store without worrying about my safety.

A cousin who lived near Chattanooga gave me a cat named Smokie (or maybe it was Cinder, Blackie, or some other original name for a black cat). She loved that cat, but he would rub against her legs (women wore dresses back then), and her legs would break out. I took the cat home to south Mississippi, which was a distance of 450 miles. Two days later, he left. My cousin and I would talk on the phone from time and I dreaded the day she asked about her cat, but she never did, and I never told her he was gone. About eight months after Smokie ran away, my cousin called, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Smokie came back.” She said she had heard a cat crying and scratching at the front door, and when she opened the door, Smokie ran past her to where his food bowl used to be. When she was a child, Peggy had a dog that came home from across town, but that was the first and only long-distance journey that I knew beyond any reasonable doubt to be true.

For nearly eighteen years starting in the mid-seventies, I had a schnauzer named Wendy who was the only dog I ever knew who didn’t like to be petted, but she was completely devoted to me and went everywhere I went. When I worked as a remodeler, Wendy spent her days in gutted houses. When I worked as a roofer, Wendy would sit on the highest point of the ridge and either nap or watch the people going by. When I traveled the country checking out communes, drug parties, and orgies, Wendy checked out communes, drug parties, and orgies (as a non-participant). When I hitchhiked, Wendy hitchhiked. When Peggy and I went on vacation (being teachers, we would travel all summer and for two weeks in December), Wendy went too. Anywhere I was, Wendy was, and she always seemed content except for when we stayed at the Hare Krishna headquarters near Moundsville, West Virginia. The sights, sounds, smells, and behaviors of the hundreds of people at that place so weirded her out that she was enormously relieved when we left. 

Twice I left Wendy with other people while I ran an errand, and both times, I met her walking down the road looking for me when I returned. Because she went everywhere and scarcely knew what a leash looked like, Wendy had a lot of accidents over her 17-years, the worst of which was when she fell from the top of a football stadium onto concrete. She and some kids had run up the bleachers, and although there was a guardrail at the top, it was too high to do Wendy any good, and, not realizing that she was on the last step, she jumped one time too many and screamed as she fell. It took over a year for her to recover from that, and for the first couple of months, I had to carry her outdoors to use the bathroom.

Twice, she had her side ripped-open by barbwire. Another time, she chased a cat across the street and ran into the wheel of a passing car (the spinning of the wheel caused her to roll a few times, but she wasn’t hurt). One night, she ate an entire box of rat poison. I called the vet at home, and he said to give her hydrogen peroxide until she barfed the poison up. I was out of peroxide so I drove the seven miles into town to get some. When I got to the checkout, I discovered that I didn’t have any money, so I told the clerk I would pay her later and ran out of the store. I got Wendy out of the truck, and sat on the curb right there in front of Krogers pouring peroxide down her throat. She and everyone else who saw me thought I had lost my mind, but I got that poison out of her. (Peroxide only works if the dog recently ate the poison.) She had other accidents too—eating a used contraceptive sponge comes to mind—but these are the ones I remember best.

For some of the time I had Wendy, I lived on eight acres in a house that my father and I built. If Wendy was asleep on the porch, I would sometimes sneak off into the woods, climb a tree, and call her. The woods being open, I could see her searching for me. For some reason, it never occurred to her to look up, so she would return to the tree time after time, and wonder why I wasn’t there. I would wait until she was far away to come down, and then I would run to another part of the woods and wait for her to find me.

During a trip to New York, Peggy and I went to an outdoor Paul Winter concert at a Sufi commune that had previously been a Shaker commune. During the concert, Paul instructed the audience to howl, and Wendy joined in. After Paul thought we had howled enough, he motioned for us to stop, but Wendy didn’t get the message. If anyone in that audience had an inalienable right to howl, it was she, so I let her rip. People soon started looking around for the jerk who was howling, but Wendy was so low to the ground that no one who wasn’t nearby could see her.

On a hot Minnesota day, I took her to some unremembered outdoor entertainment, and when we left, Wendy was lying on her back in my arms with her head hanging back and her legs splayed out. Someone asked if she was okay, and I said, “No, she’s dead, but it doesn’t matter because she was old anyway.” Years later, a woman said she was moved by Wendy’s loyalty to me, so I offered to sell Wendy to her, and named a price. The woman looked horrified and said that she could never buy my dog, so I kept dropping the price until she went away mad. 

Baxter in a customary posture, 2009
Baxter was also a black schnauzer, but he weighed almost twice as much as Wendy. Sometimes, he would eat used dental floss, and we wouldn’t know it until his shit came out like a rosary. Because the floss never came all the way out, his shit would follow him when he walked away, and this would seriously wig him out (as it would any of us). Peggy would then pull the floss out of his ass while I acted like I didn’t know either of them. I always left it to Peggy to do things that were gross or embarrassing, what with her being a nurse and all. Every now and then, she would decide that Baxter’s ass needed wiping, so she would take a Kleenex and wipe it. I hated it when she did this in public. (When our cat, Brewsky, washes his ass, he makes a face like that of someone who just tasted a dill pickle for the first time.)

One day, Baxter was in the back of my van with the groceries (it’s never a good idea to put food where a schnauzer can get to it), and broke into a large bag of carob chips. He vomited for a long time, but it was nothing compared to when we were camping in Arkansas, and our Irish Setter, Patty, got bit by a copperhead. She was too swollen to walk, so to cheer her up, I gave her a tin of sardines, which she threw up all over our bed. When Peggy said I should have seen it coming, I said that any man would have done the same, and she agreed.

Schnauzers are more flexible than most dogs
We have a lot of raccoons in our neighborhood, and they can be aggressive, which makes them scary in the dark when you can’t see them. One night, I let Bonnie and Baxter out to pee only to realize that there were eight or ten raccoons in the yard. The dogs exploded, so after thinking the situation over, the raccoons crossed the street and went into a culvert that emptied into a canal eight feet below street level. Baxter ran in after them, and there soon followed a cacophony of snarling, growling, and screaming (Baxter doing the last). Having nothing else at hand, I ran across the street in my underwear with a plastic tennis-ball throwing stick and slid down the dew-covered grass to the mouth of the culvert just in time to see Baxter exit the culvert with a raccoon’s teeth in his ass. Being on a steep and wet slope with nothing for a weapon but a plastic stick, I worried that the raccoon might attack me too, but he finally went back into the culvert. By then, Baxter was at home finding comfort on Peggy’s breast.

On another occasion, Baxter ran right up to our neighbors’ two huskies and barked in their faces like he expected them to run. They looked at him with a pleased expression that said, “Oh, happy day, we get to kill us a moron.” One husky hit him from the front and the other from the rear, a situation that caused Baxter to lie on his back and have a bowel movement. The huskies’ person, Dave, grabbed one dog and I the other. When Dave later suggested that my schnauzer had bitten off more than he could chew, I said that, no, he was in the process of waging chemical warfare, and I had only stepped in to save the huskies.

Bonnie Blue, 2002
My heeler, Bonnie, was a strong and aggressive dog who would bite both people and other dogs, yet when I felt the need to chasten her, even a gentle word would break her heart, so I would always cuddle with her afterwards. By contrast, when Baxter disobeyed, I could scream, curse, wave my fist in his face, and jump up and down, during which time, he would look at me with his eyes wide and his front teeth shining in his black face (his upper lip was too short to cover his teeth) as if he was swearing on his mother’s grave that he would never commit such an outrage again. As soon as my back was turned, he would commit the same outrage again, and I could have screamed at him all day long without it making the least difference. He was much like a cat in this way. Brewsky is so stubborn that unless something is really important to me, I don’t even bother correcting him, and even then treats work better than chastisement.

When Bonnie was half grown, she and I would drive to the hospital at midnight to pick Peggy up from work. One night, I saw Peggy walking out of the hospital before Bonnie did, so I said, “Bonnie, where’s Peggy?” Bonnie looked at me with her pretty eyes while tilting her beautiful head from side to side as she considered the possibilities. Then, she jumped onto the floorboard and looked under the seat! I’ve often been delighted by indications that dogs see the world in a very different way than people. It’s as if they believe in magic.

Bonnie also taught me another useful lesson. People often try to make friends with a dog by letting the dog sniff their fingers. Bonnie would take this as an invitation to bite their fingers, so, instead of offering my open hand to strange dogs, I now offer them the back of my fist because it’s harder for a dog to hurt a person’s fist.

Another thing I learned from Bonnie was that different breeds differ enormously in jaw strength. If I wanted to give Baxter a pill, I could easily pry his mouth open, but Bonnie had such strength in her jaws that I was afraid I would break them. 

She couldn't have been more beautiful
One day, I was walking from the backyard to the frontyard when I passed Bonnie crossing the backyard in the other direction. “Hello, Bonnie,” I said, to which she responded, “You’re the joy of my life, Master” (she used to say this a lot, but I never tired of hearing it). Imagine my surprise when I got to the frontyard and found Bonnie fast asleep in the shade. Since there was a total of four closed gates between the two yards, I either hallucinated a dog, or Bonnie did something weird.

I have a neighbor who’s phobic of dogs. One day he was in my yard while Bonnie was out, so he started trembling when he saw her, so she naturally ran across the yard and bit him on the ankle, and this inspired him to scream and throw himself to the ground. It wasn’t the kind of thing that one man should see another man do. Our mailman was also phobic of dogs, so he would approach our house with his hand on his pepper spray.

I watched a skinny little blond girl of seven who, upon seeing Bonnie, ran away screaming and waving her arms in a textbook illustration of how to behave if you want to be bitten by a dog. Another time, a woman was determined to make friends with Bonnie, so she gave her treat after treat until she ran out of treats. Thinking that she and Bonnie were now friends, she stuck out her empty hand, and Bonnie snapped at it in contradiction of the belief that a dog won’t bite the hand that feeds it.

I only saw Bonnie back down twice. On one occasion, I had a weight-bench and some other things in the driveway that I was hoping to sell, and I was in the garage looking for more things to put out. I trusted Bonnie to let me know when I had a customer, so imagine my surprise to find a huge, heavily muscled, and gruff-voiced man standing right there beside me. I immediately looked at Bonnie as if to ask, “Why the fuck didn’t you say something?” and she looked at me like she wanted to melt into the floor. The man said he was fresh out of prison and looking for a weight bench so he could keep up his exercise regimen. 

On the second occasion, Bonnie and Peggy and I were camping in ranch country. Peggy likes to take a walk in the evening, and on this occasion she and Bonnie wanted to walk more than I. It became dark before they returned and, cowdog though she was, Bonnie had never seen a cow, so when all these big bovines started walking toward her and Peggy in the darkness, Bonnie took off running and didn’t stop until she got back to the van. Peggy is afraid of cows too, but she couldn’t run fast enough to keep up with Bonnie.

I had two rabbits named Becky and Buster who I would allow to wander around the backyard during the daytime. Becky was bad about getting out of the yard, and one day she escaped into an overgrown vacant lot. I tried and tried but couldn’t catch her, and during all this, Bonnie was at my side begging, “Let me do it! Let me do it! I can do it; I promise you that I can do it. Please oh please, let me do it.” Finally, I said, “Bonnie, get Becky, but don’t hurt her,” and within seconds, Bonnie had Becky penned to the ground with one paw over Becky’s back.

Once, Peggy and I were biking on country roads with Bonnie and Baxter when two big and strong dogs came out from a house and crowded Peggy in an effort to wreck her bike. We got past them okay, but on the trip back they became more aggressive, so I got between them and Peggy, and told her to take Bonnie and Baxter and go on ahead, which she did. As the two dogs and I stood staring at one another, I realized that Bonnie had returned and was pressing against my leg. For awhile there was stand-off as the two dogs waited for us to leave, presumably so they could attack us when our backs were turned. I had a can of pepper spray, so I got off my bike, pointed it at them, and starting walking in their direction, all the while cursing and threatening in a deadly serious voice. Then, the strangest thing happened. At the exact same instant, they turned in unison and walked away, and I’ve always wondered how they communicated their intention to do this. I’ve remembered those dogs many times over the years, always with an appreciation for their seeming intelligence and the harmony with which they worked together. Since then, my dogs have been twice attacked by pit bulls, and I even had to beat one off Baxter with my fists. I have come to despise pit bulls even though I was once a friend with one. 

Friendlier than he looks, Brewsky at 16.5 lbs
As Peggy’s cat-loving sister warned us when we finally got burned-out on the work of having dogs and got a rescue cat, “You’re dog people, and a cat is not a dog.” The second half of her statement is true. Unlike dogs, Brewsky doesn’t want to go on adventures. He wants to stay home, eat, sleep (in the same places at the same times everyday), have deep-tissue massages, kill spiders, and gaze out the window at passing critters. Most of the time, we have little idea what he’s thinking or feeling because his expression doesn’t change much, yet he is obviously attached to us as can be seen by his desire to be near us, the sweet way he greets us at the front door after we’ve been shopping, and the fact that he becomes upset when we’re packing to go somewhere (he even stops pooping while we’re away). Still, I can’t feel the rapport with him that comes so easily with dogs. For example, Peggy still cries over Bonnie and Baxter, although they’ve been dead for years, and a couple of weeks ago, she was crying while holding Brewsky, and instead of being supportive, Brewsky became annoyed and bit her lightly on the neck. No dog would have done that, and it reinforces my belief that, at the very least, Brewsky is oblivious to social cues that are easily understood by dogs and humans.

This doesn’t mean I’m sorry I have a cat or that I would prefer to have a dog, because cats come with some very attractive features. For example, the litter box feature, the self-cleaning feature, the clean-smelling feature (Bonnie had a wonderful musky odor, but this is rare in dogs), and the fact that, instead of needing a walk when the weather is crap, he would think we had lost our minds if we tried to take him for one. So, while I feel less of a connection with a cat, decades of caring for dogs has led me to a place I never imagined I would reach, that is I have come to value convenience over connection. Still, not a day goes that I don’t miss having dogs, but aside from the trouble and expense, I also have to consider how Brewsky would feel, and I’ve no doubt but what he would feel betrayed. Humans tend to expect pets to adjust to whatever we throw at them, but sometimes they don’t, and this can be a drag for everyone concerned.

I could go on with pet stories for quite some time, but whatever I wanted to achieve for myself with this post, I think I have, so this seems like a good place to stop. No, I have one more story.

We have a gas furnace in our laundry room and because it is noisy, I put plywood around it, but left vent holes in the plywood and put wheels under the plywood. Brewsky was forever knocking his toys under the plywood, so I finally took off one of the vent covers so he could retrieve them. The furnace soon became his special place, and he would stay there for hours every day. When I discovered that one of the things he was doing in his special place was chewing the insulation off the pipes, I put the vent cover back on, and, god, but did this ever piss him off! He stomped around mewing loudly in a way that could only be interpreted as profanity, and this made me feel closer to him because I could relate to his  frustration at being unable to hold onto something that was important to him. My pets have given me a window into species other than my own, and Peggy and I both miss some of the dogs we’ve lost more than we do our parents. I don’t trust people who don’t love animals. Sometimes, a person will come to my house and, when greeted by my pet, look at him or her in silence, as if a dog or cat has no more feelings than a knick-knack. Once that happens, a distance is created between that person and myself that will never be breached. If someone should ask me who I am, near the top would be: a person who loves animals.

Are children more important than dogs?

The Original Sin, Bartholomeus Spranger
Intrinsic value: the value of a being in itself without regard to other beings.

My morality is so different from that of my fellows, that they usually think less of me in proportion to what they know of me. For instance, I see no reason to believe that my species is more important than other species. This means that we have no special right to compassion or respect, and I would even extend this claim to presumably inanimate objects, although I’m unsure that any object is truly inanimate. When I touched on this matter a few months ago, the mother of my grandchild took it to mean that if her child and a dog were drowning, I would be as apt to save the dog as the child, and was therefore an unfit grandfather.

While she was correct in interpreting my words to mean that I don’t hold her daughter to have a greater intrinsic right to life than a dog, I still prefer her child to a dog, so I would therefore save her child. This didn’t satisfy her because she needed me to believe that her child was of greater intrinsic value than a dog (a rather odd demand given that intrinsic value exists in a realm beyond comparison), and the fact that I didn’t regard this claim as self-evident could only mean that I am worse than wrong, I am deranged. Sad to say, I regarded her claim as anything but self-evident. However great her child’s perceived importance, it would be based upon the mother’s values, values that are necessarily relative. For instance, she might argue that her child is more important than a dog because her child has greater beauty, intelligence, versatility, creativity, or whatever, but by its very definition, intrinsic value exists independent of comparative value. This means that it cannot be proven, and if it cannot be proven, why should anyone believe it? But what if she is right, and her child is more important than a dog based upon its greater virtues, would this not mean that if some other child had more virtues than her child, then that child would be more important than her child?

Claims regarding our species’ importance aren’t claims that descended from heaven on platinum tablets (except to the extent that we seek to justify them by putting words into the mouth of God), but are instead human claims that support human values. We hold a child to be of greater value than a dog, and the life of our own children to be of greater value than the lives of other people’s children, not because we can prove it, but because believing it favors our evolutionary viability. This is why every parent would choose to save the life of her own average child over the life of someone else’s genius or, perhaps, over the life of everyone else’s genius. We are evolutionarily disposed to favor our own flesh and blood over other people’s flesh and blood and our own tribe, however defined, over other people’s tribes, and this is why we invented the concept of intrinsic importance.

To repeat, I see no reason to regard my species as more important than any other species. The polar bear has as much right to respect as we do, so it is no less noble to work for the welfare of polar bears—or slugs for that matter—than for the welfare of Syrian orphans. I believe the same about seemingly inanimate objects. This means that rocks deserve respect. Tin cans deserve respect. The whole earth and everything on it has has a right to respect, and while we must use the other species and the materials that the earth offers in order to live, it would behoove us to use as little of those species and materials as possible, and to treat them as well as possible because we have no right to them unless it can be argued that power constitutes right.

Just as the mother of my granddaughter saw me as immoral in denying the intrinsic value of her child over that of a dog, I see her as immoral for dividing the earth into things that are important and things that are of little or no importance, and claiming that she has the wisdom to separate the two. Every time she—or any of us—throws a banana peel in the garbage, we show contempt for the earth, and this constitutes a grave immorality. Inasmuch as possible, all things must be treated well. All things must be regarded as our brothers and sisters, and this means dogs and inanimate objects as well as children. Why? Because we are not the creators of this world but its inhabitors, and all of the things that we see around us are our neighbors. It’s a high standard with implications that are hard to determine, and demands that I often fail to meet, but it is my standard. My failures are endless, and it is to this extent that I relate to the Biblical concept of original sin, original sin consisting of, at the very least, those behaviors that we must perform in order to survive, behaviors that invariably involve the destruction of other life forms and the alteration of non-life forms. We don’t exploit because we have an intrinsic right to exploit but because we have an inbred preference for our own lives, families, and tribes over other lives, families, and tribes. We are an illustration of Tennyson’s words:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation
s final law
Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek
d against his creed.

While we can never rise to the standard portrayed by the first two lines, perhaps by giving up our self-congratulatory belief that our species (and especially our family and tribe) holds an exalted state in the scheme of things, we might at least rise above the last two.

Some results of chronic pain

I have two doctor appointments this week. I saw my internist yesterday, and he put me on Lexapro (I’ve lost count of how many drugs I’m taking). Today, I see my latest pain specialist who, like my previous pain specialists, has labored in vain (chronic pain is notoriously hard to treat) and whose staff won’t follow through with his orders for meds and other supplies or even return phone calls (I finally did get a call from his office--two minutes ago someone phoned to cancel my appointment).

I’ve felt as fragile lately as I can remember. I’m a bit like Moritz Thomsen, a WWII bomber crewman who wrote that people generally believed that the more missions he survived, the stronger he became, but that the opposite was true, that every mission left him weaker and more frightened. My ability to survive is directly connected to my belief that I will someday get better, and this faith has become increasingly hard to maintain, hence the Lexapro. I’ve resisted anti-depressants for years, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

People who have not suffered with chronic pain have no idea what it is like, and, as with acute pain, I have no thought that I would either if I were suddenly restored to normalcy. But I’m not normal, and I spend every waking hour of every day hurting. The emotional cost has been high, and the following represents my effort to convey that cost. After years of suffering, chronic pain...

Makes me unable to remember things.

Causes me to question my judgments and perceptions.

Makes me feel so confused that I need Peggy to tell me what’s real.

Causes people to lose confidence in what I say because I am so often in error.

Leaves me exhausted if I get out of bed, but won’t let me sleep if I stay in bed.

Makes it necessary to take numerous pills, sleep in the perfect bed, and use a CPAP every moment I’m in bed because the pills make my severe sleep apnea dangerous to the point of being potentially fatal.  

Makes me regard myself as a weakling because I’ve no doubt that a lot of people do a lot better in the face of a lot worse.

Causes people to treat me as an invalid who must be watched and protected.

Injects stress into my relationship with Peggy because small things can instantly send me over the edge.

Makes me isolated, and being isolated makes me more dependent upon Peggy. 

Makes me think that I have little to give, and that the day might come when Peggy will be better off without me.

Would make me even more impatient, irritable, and hateful without Peggy to give me balance and perspective.

Makes every action seem hard, and causes me to feel that I can never do enough and I can never do it well enough.  

Makes me cynical and distant because I have learned that most relationships end when hard times begin.

Makes me mourn for the person I used to be and even to wonder what that person was like.

Causes me to recoil from pity because I can’t separate pity from condescension. I would prefer that people believe I’m strong even when I’m unable to believe it of myself.

Makes me feel like I’m having a bad drug trip even when I haven’t taken any drugs.

Makes me guarded, watchful, fearful, afraid to ride my bicycle, afraid to take a walk, afraid my car will break down, afraid my house will burn down, and afraid an earthquake might hit, because I know I wouldn’t have the strength to cope.

Makes me fearful of losing my mind.

Makes me wonder at times if I’ve already lost my mind.

Causes me think that if I were smart and strong, I would find a way to escape the pain, or at least it wouldn’t bother me so much.

Makes me feel as if other people are together somewhere out there, and I am alone in here.

Makes me feel desperate enough to want to believe things about religion that I know aren’t true. I interpret this to mean that I lack integrity, and the fact that no church would want me anyway leaves me enraged by what I see as their hypocrisy.

Makes me rehearse suicide daily because I want to be ready when life becomes so hard that I can no longer bear it.

Has driven away most of those who once read my blog because they got tired of sad posts.

Makes it impossible for me to relax my muscles for more than a few moments.

Makes it impossible to plan events because I can never trust that I will feel good enough to carry through.

Makes the universe seem uncaring if not malevolent.

Forces me to evaluate every new physical activity in order to decide whether I should risk it.

Makes me hate that intrusive question that is asked by every acquaintance and every store clerk without the least desire on their part to hear the answer or on mine to give it: “How are you?”

Makes me fearful that one day I’ll explode.

Makes me wonder what it would look like to explode.

Makes me certain that I’m failing at life at a profound level.

Makes it harder to bear life’s hurts because it’s all I can do to cope when everything is going well.

Makes me too tired to work, travel, meet people, or attend events. 

Has taken away whatever gifts or intelligence that I might have once offered the world.

Makes me feel dead while alive.

Makes me want to run from people because I don’t feel like a normal person who says and does normal things.

Makes me resentful of people who feel good and have the energy to be a part of life.

Makes me scared that the pain will keep getting worse and that new kinds of pain will be added to it.

Makes me almost phobic that I might have to have more surgeries, and that they will leave me in even more pain for a year or more.

Makes me want to die prematurely.

Makes me scared that I will die prematurely. 

Makes me wonder why the pain is a lot worse at some times than other times.

Makes me wonder if at least some of my pain isn
’t imaginary.

Makes me feel alone because other people don’t know what it’s like and few really care.

Has taught me that pain specialists have little to offer, and they’re damned slow to offer that.

Teaches me that the only way I can get narcotics is to be very careful about what I say and do.

Leaves me fearful that if anything happens to my internist, I won’t be able to get narcotics. 

Causes me to switch back and forth from near normalcy to near suicidal despair and hysteria.

Starry, Starry Night

The Prison Courtyard by Van Gogh
I stayed up last night watching Schlinder’s List and interviews of Holocaust survivors, and this plus having awakened with a passage by Loren Eiseley stuck in my head following a night of physical pain and sleeplessness, have put me into such an altered state that when Peggy played the song Starry, Starry Night,* I wept for an hour. Not perceiving this at first, she asked if I thought that great artists and writers really are prone to insanity. I couldn’t answer without betraying my tears, but my silence had the same effect.

The following is from an Eiseley essay entitled “The Dancing Rat.”** I do him a severe injustice by quoting so little of it, but someone still owns the copyright, and I feel morally obligated to respect that. He’s writing about his days as a hobo during the 1930s when an unregulated stock market left millions impoverished and sparked considerable interest in Communism. His face is swollen from a beating by a railway brakeman who had tried to kill him just for the hell of it. The man with whom he is speaking is another
hobo with “prison eyes” who is more than twice the age of the nineteen-year-old Eiseley.  I first read this passage 40-years ago, and realized upon awakening that much of the misery in my life has come from resisting its truth, that is from trying to think better of man and God than they deserve.

“The sack was empty. He stood up in the firelight and cast it on the flames. The paper flared briefly, accentuating the hard contours of his face. ‘Remember this,’ he said suddenly, dispassionately, as though the voice originated over his shoulder. ‘Just get this straight. It’s all there is and after a while you’ll see it for yourself.’ He studied me again without expression. ‘The capitalists beat men into line. Okay? The communists beat men into line. Right again?’

“‘I reckon,’ I ventured, more to fill the silence growing around us than because I understood.

“He pointed gently at my swollen face. ‘Men beat men, that’s all. That’s all there is. Remember it, kid. Take care of yourself.’ He walked away up the dark diverging track.

“That man, whose name I never knew, must be long dead. I know he would have died as he lived, perhaps in his final moments staring silently upward at the cracked ceiling of a Chicago flophouse, or alone in some gun-lit moment of violence.

“Years later when the bodies of men like him lay on dissecting tables before me, I steeled myself to look at their faces. I never found him. I’m glad I never did, but if I had, I would have claimed him for burial. I owed him that much for some intangible reason. He did not kill the illusions of youth, not right away. But he left all my life henceforward free of mobs and moments, free as only wild thing are both solitary and free. I owed him that.

“Before nothing
behind nothing
worship it the zero.”


This country will have a presidential election in November of next year, but news of the contrivances of the many hopefuls already dominates the news. Maybe my sickness over the state of American politics is why I awakened with Eiseley’s words in my head because seldom is the truth of them more obvious than in the greed, filth, tackiness, and brutality of America’s money-dominated political system. It creates in me the feeling of being under the thumb of people who are as malevolent as they are powerful, people whose moral forebears caused the crash of 1929 and who are working to create the same deregulation now that existed then.

*Rather than having committed suicide, it is likely that the emotionally fragile Van Gogh was murdered by bullies. Though he lived in poverty, his paintings are now too spendy for art museums but are instead sought by investors who lock them away in vaults with the hope of turning a profit.


Bud and others

Precious memories, unseen angels
Sent from somewhere to my soul.
How they linger ever near me
And the sacred past unfolds.

Precious Father, loving Mother
Fly across the lonely years,
And the home scenes of my childhood
In fond memory appear.

 —JBF Wright, 1925

In 1961, when I was twelve, a preacher took some of us kids to sing this hymn and others to a hundred-year-old lady named Stewart who lived in the country with her two “old maid” daughters and her bachelor son. Like my family and many others when I was growing up in rural Mississippi, their house was small and unpainted inside and out; their light came from kerosene lamps; their heat from a wood-burning cookstove and fireplace; and their refrigerator was cooled with ice that was delivered by the iceman. The boards on the outside of the house were weathered a soft gray, but the ones on the floors, walls, and ceilings, had been darkened by the smoke of wood and kerosene until they were a dark and depressing brown. The house smelled of wood smoke, and the only decorations were a Cardui calendar* and ancient photographs of grim-looking ancestors.

I knew and loved the Stewarts and as I sang I wondered what it must be like to be feeble, blind, a hundred years old, and sit in a rocker all day everyday with nothing to do but think about but the past.

Bud in 1989, a few months before he died
In the Stewart’s backyard was a well that they drew water from with a bucket, and on their back porch was a shelf that held a dipper, a bucket of water, and a washbasin, all of which were made of white, porcelain-coated metal. There was also a bar of homemade lye soap. They farmed with a mule and brushed their teeth with salt and baking soda. I would sit in the shade while Bud plowed during the day, and he would tell me ghost stories in the evening. One evening, his cows didn’t come home on time, so he and I went looking for them. When he asked me if I heard anything, I didn’t know that he meant cowbells, so I said I heard birds, frogs, and crickets, and he laughed about that every time I saw him for the rest of his life. Bud died in 1989, and I still miss him. The worst thing I can say about my life is that I didn’t adequately appreciate much of what I had until it was gone, although I spent a lot of time pursuing things that were worse than a waste.

As I travel on life
s pathway,
I know not what the years may hold.
As I ponder, hope grows fonder
Precious memories flood my soul.

As I was buying my groceries this week, an old and feeble man was buying his when another old man approached him, and the first apologized for taking so long. I assumed that the second man had driven the first to the store, and I’ve felt badly ever since that I didn’t offer to drive him sometimes. I miss having elders.

Peggy’s father is 85, and she worries daily about him dying. I know how she feels because I dreaded losing my parents. In one way, it was a relief when they died because it meant that I had escaped a lot of the problems that elderly parents can pose, but it was also an unhealing grief, although I didn’t anticipate this at the time. The fact is that I still need to feel loved and protected by people who are older and wiser than I, but more than that, I need to know that they care about me more than anything else
and that they would do anything for me. I lost my mother when I was 39 and my father when I was 45. These losses bothered me like a stabbing pain when they occurred, but they’re more like a bruise now. 

From the time of my childhood, I heard that life would look better in the rearview mirror, but I didn’t believe it. Now, I can never get used to the fact that people who remained in my life for years and years without the least effort on my part are gone forever, and there’s nothing that all the powers on earth can do to bring them back for even a moment.

Precious memories, how they linger
How they ever flood my soul.
In the stillness of the midnight,
Precious sacred scenes unfold.

Oh, how those precious memories;
They flood my soul.

*Cardui Tonic produced calendars from 1890 until 2012.

News and Reflections

I’ve developed some new health problems of late. One is hellacious gas that makes me swell so big that it’s obvious, another is pain in my groin, and the third is pain in my left jaw. I had a CT-scan last week to see what the groin pain is about; I’m taking two drugs for the gas (they’re not helping much); and Kirk (my internist) suggested a fatter tooth guard (I’ve slept with a tooth guard for thirty years) for the jaw pain.

I’ve also gotten to where I go out in the backyard in my underwear. It’s usually for only a moment to take out the trash or empty the compost, but sometimes it’s for a little longer. The people in the house behind me live higher up, and they have a home office in their windowed back porch, so they can clearly see me. I just figure that, hell, I’m as covered-up as people would be at the beach if the beach in Oregon wasn’t so cold.

Another thing I do is to walk around naked indoors with the blinds raised. Peggy doesn’t like this, so she’ll come along and close them. It
’s not that I’m an exhibitionist, it’s that I don’t care. The thought that I live in a society that watches movies with gratuitous nudity (nearly always on the part of young females), but objects to neighbors in their underwear or naked in their own houses is something I’m unwilling to honor.
Peggy took a trip to the coast with two friends last week, and one of them came back with food poisoning. The diarrhea got so bad that her husband had to go to the store and buy her some diapers. I laughed to think that he never dreamed he would have to do something like that when they were young and he mistook her for a goddess. I also knew that he was mad about her going on the trip (because of the expense), so I hoped he was kind to her while she was sick.

I’m better than most at observing people closely enough to know what they need. A common example would be that if Peggy and I are in the kitchen, and she washes her hands, I’ll hand her a towel, so she won’t have to get one off the hanger at the end of the counter. Peggy doesn’t watch me like I watch her, and it sometimes hurts my feelings that she doesn’t know I need help when it seems so obvious. I think to myself, how can she not know? The reason, of course, is that she isn’t paying attention, but how is it that I pay attention, and she doesn’t? I know she loves me, but I also know that she’s often oblivious to my needs, and I can’t put the two together.

The Lane County Fair is in progress, and I live across the street from the fairgrounds. I have a double driveway, and people need a place to park, so I sometimes flag them down and tell them to park in my driveway. Yesterday, about 3:00 in the afternoon, I did this in my pajamas because I saw someone who was trying to fit his car into too small a space and who was old enough that I wanted to spare him and his wife a long walk.

Other kinds of charity I engage in are that I give money to street musicians as long as they’re not so bad that they hurt my ears, but I’ve yet to give a penny to a panhandler. Peggy has strong feelings against giving money to beggars, so she was surprised when I started giving money to street musicians. “They’re at least trying to earn it,” I said, “and it is only a dollar.” I also help people when I happen upon someone who needs help, and I give money to various charities—Public Broadcasting, Sierra Club, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, all but the first of which are considered dangerous by conservatives. I only give a little more than what will pay for membership, but I tell myself that I will make up for it when I’m dead. They’ll need the money as much then as they do now.

A month ago, Peggy and I were visiting Mt. Angel Monastery when we met a traveling homeless man with a husky. He wanted the monks to let him camp in their woods, but they said no, but that if he would go back into town, the nuns at the convent might have a place for him. It being unusually hot that day, Peggy and I did something that was extraordinary for us, we took him and the dog into town to the convent and left him in the care of a gruff but hopefully caring nun. He could tell that we weren’t completely happy about helping him, so he said that he would be okay with walking, but I said that it wasn’t him we were helping, it was his dog because his dog was suffering in the heat. Indeed, if he hadn’t had that husky, he would have been on his own.

I find in the music of Taizé a feeling deeper than words and a place where doctrine is irrelevant. Tears roll down my cheeks. I find it hard to even walk, and I’m in a daze when I try. It’s as if the key has been found to some lock within myself, yet I’m not a believer, and even Taizé is powerless to make me a believer. Still, Taizé represents to me what religion should be, that is a source of peace, beauty, and inclusion. I trust that the people who wrote it and are performing it are reaching out their arms to me rather than consigning me to hell. If all Christians were open-hearted this way, non-Christians might even respect them
Many atheists regard religion as a weakness at best and a mental illness at worst, and this leads them to reject religious art and music. For years, I was this way, and I still won’t purchase the “gospel” music that I grew up with, although I’m moved by some of it. My reason for avoiding it is that it contains too many statements about blood, belief, and heaven for me to relax into it. Also, I know that the people who I went to church with as a child would want to exclude me from enjoying it just as they exclude me from their churches, so I’m content to leave their music and their churches to them. 

I shared the video link with my Christian friend, Robert (Rhymes with Plague), and since the words of the first selection mean grant us peace, he asked who it was that I thought would grant me peace. I often feel that believers are trying to convince me that I’m not a real atheist. I wish they were right, but I’m as real as it gets regarding non-belief in the supernatural because I can’t look at the misery that pervades our world and see God in it. Still, when it comes to what is in my heart, I can’t completely let go of religion either because if it’s not true, then what’s the point? This world alone simply isn’t enough for me because it contains so much sorrow and because every life ends in death. Even the good I experience is like a dessert that I only get to taste before its taken away (I refer mostly to my relationship with Peggy). 

P.S. If you’re open to being consumed by this music, you need to lie down and be still, but I have no thought that my atheist readers will be open to it. I just think they’ll feel sorry for me because I love it.

Peggy is also an atheist, and last week when we were hiking atop Indian Ridge and enjoying the view of mountains from Hood to Thielsen (about 250 miles), I asked her if she had rather live with the sadness of knowing that we will be soon separated by death, or would she prefer to believe in something that she now considers a myth. She said she had rather believe. I’ve always thought that the desire to believe was indicative of weakness, but issues of strength versus weakness become less important as one’s need (if not one’s desperation) increases. I can hardly condemn a person for believing that which I too would believe if I could.

Peggy is in awe of the fact that I can stop-up a toilet instantly because, if not for the toilet paper, she couldn’t stop one up in a week. She doesn’t exactly envy me my talent, but this doesn’t prevent me from grunting, pointing, and curling my biceps if I drop a major bomb while she’s around. In June, we spent the night at Oregon Garden, and I stopped their toilet up just as we were leaving our room. There was no plunger, and I was too embarrassed to leave the problem to them, so I unstopped it with my hand.

One of our schnauzers would eat used dental floss, and it would  make his shit come out like a rosary. This would absolutely scare the dickens out of him, so Peggy would have to take the end of the floss and pull. There are some jobs that I am happy to leave to her, especially in public where I try to look the other way and pretend I’m alone.

If I wrote more personal posts like this, more people would like my blog. It’s not that I don’t know how to please people, but that I write about what occurs to me and in the way that it occurs to me. I lost two long-term face-to-face friends (and, therefore, a surrogate granddaughter) recently because of a post (, and that was very hard for me and even harder for Peggy, but I couldn’t apologize because here is where I am who I am, and people can either like it or not. Maybe this makes me sound hard, but my goal is to present to my readers the best gift that I can give, by which I mean the gift of myself at my core. If they reject that, they’re rejecting me, and there is really nothing I can do but to let them go.

Benevolent Inquisitors?

My hero, George Carlin*
“Politically correct: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” Merriam Webster

Now, who could oppose that? Moi! Tooth and nail! Hammer and fist! Feather and pillow! But why? What could have made me so depraved? I
’ll tell you.

To begin with, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the U.S. Bill of Rights. To whit: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” After 200-plus years, PC has discovered that the founding fathers couldn’t tell their asses from a hole in the ground, making it necessary for us to do precisely what they forbade.

PCers seek to accomplish legally what terrorists attempt to do with bullets, that is to silence anyone who disagrees with them, although PC is more dangerous because when the law opposes freedom, dissidents are without appeal. It
’s also true that the methods of terrorists are counter-productive, except among true-believers and PCers anyway. When cartoonists and filmmakers are murdered, PC maintains that they brought it upon themselves.

Until PC can make its values into law (as, they’re fond of saying,
has already been done in the rest of the civilized world), they’re stuck with extralegal intimidation to whip people into line. Peggy’s former employer (Peace Health, no less) not only fired people for non-PC remarks, it encouraged employees to rat on one another for saying the wrong thing in private conversation, both at and away from work.

PC would seem to offer something to everyone since all of us are treated badly by someone for some reason. The young are considered naive by the old, and the old are patronized as doddery by the young. City people regard country people as hicks, and country people joke about city people being squirrelly. Depending upon the person I’m with, I’m considered inferior for reasons of age, accent, gender, atheism, race, rurality, nationality, slowness to speak, and various unpopular values. PC promises a world in which I would never again be consigned to a box of inferiority, but since they themselves
consign me to one, I have no confidence in their honesty or their benevolence. 

My opinion of the politically correct is no better than theirs of me. I consider them humorless, shallow, and no more kind and inclusive than the Gestapo. People who live by a narrow set of rules and seek to use intimidation to force those rules upon others can only bring misery into the world. It’s not the apathetic who terrorize people; it’s the idealists.

Force cannot create virtue. Repress sexuality and you get perversion; demand honesty, and the result is evasiveness; force niceness, and you encourage bitterness combined with cunning.

Since college students are its major proponents, PC is likely to become increasingly dominant. Chris Rock expressed his reason for no longer performing at colleges this way: “…they’re way too conservative.... Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” Now, students are recording lectures so that they can pick them apart for signs of microaggression.

I have long voted Democratic because Republicans only seem interested in the freedom of corporations and evangelicals, but now that most Democrats support laws against
hate speech, I’m left without a viable option.

By presenting its values as kind and inclusive and everyone elses as fearful and hateful, PC allows no middle ground and no room for open examination or well-intentioned disagreement (even the term politically-correct sets it against being politically-wrong).

Another hero, George Orwell
It dismisses and marginalizes by mislabeling. If you oppose illegal immigration, you’re a racist. If you oppose gay marriage for any reason, you’re a homophobe. If you oppose abortion, you’re either a paternalistic male or a female victim of male paternalism. If you refer to yourself as your pet’s owner, you’re a speciest. And god forbid that you call anyone a mailman or a waitress, because PC isn’t a matter of the heart but of the vocabulary, no matter that its vocabulary is narrow, euphemistic, patronizing, ever-changing, glaringly inaccurate, and dismissive of diversity. For instance, the term Negro was changed to black; black became African-American; and now African-American is giving way to person of color; all while the word white lingers on. Could it not be that this inability to get it right where Negro Americans are concerned arises from a discomfort with blackness, and could it not be that the whole PC phenomenon comes from a wish to deny one’s bigotry?

PC is another name for liberal-speak and while much of the country remains conservative, liberal-speak has become compulsory in the winning of elections and in the keeping of home and job. Conservative leaders might vehemently oppose many liberal positions, but they don’t dare refute liberal vocabulary.

PC substitutes name-calling for argument. PCers don
’t refer to those who disagree with them as mansplainers or whitesplainers in order to encourage intelligent discussion but to make it impossible. Accusations of fear and hatred against those who don’t use PC terminology accomplishes the same thing. If I say that Islam is a violent religion, I must surely be an Islamophobe (PC regards religion as benevolent without regard to its violence and bigotry). If I call someone an actress, I must surely be a misogynist, or if I refer to someone from China as an Oriental, I’m obviously a sinophobe and therefore an embarrassment to my friends and an object of derision to PCers.

PC not only penalizes people for holding the wrong values but for asking the wrong questions. Are there intellectual differences between women and men, and are black people better dancers? God forbid that one should wonder.

If you want to see what PC would look like if taken to its logical conclusion, read the following description by
self-described human rights activist and writer Tanya Cohen:
If people like Cohen succeed, the only people who will be fair game for criticism will be those who oppose PC. As she puts it, “Hate speech (i.e. political incorrectness) doesn
t just lead to violence, hate speech is violence.” Perhaps, you’ll be pleased to learn that, by her definition, you’re reading a blog that’s filled to the gills with hate speech and that it’s owner is proud of it.

*Carlin photo by GreyGeezer. There was a day when people like Carlin, Orwell, Thoreau, and Abbey were heroes to the young. Now that they’re pariahs, I fear for our future because if the young despise liberty, the camps will surely follow.