Poem 20 - Humans took her place Rural swamps dry or built on Refugee at home
Baxter awakened this morning with a limp. I thought his foot might have gone to sleep, but Peggy said she had never heard of this happening to a dog. I touched him all over without finding any swollen or painful spots. Then I did range of motion tests, still without result. Peggy sat at a distance looking pale. She said she must have rolled over on him in her sleep and dislocated his hip.
My next guess was that he might have strained a muscle. Peggy’s next guess was that he had distemper. She asked me to describe distemper. I said I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought it might resemble the flu. She said she couldn’t bear it if Baxter died. I pointed out that he was alert and hungry. She countered that he was trembling, moaning, and stiff. I reminded her that just watching a cat cross the street from a block away causes Baxter to tremble and moan. I suggested that we take him outdoors to see if he felt better after he limbered up. Peggy said he was cold, like he was dying. I said he felt fine to me. I took him outside, and he was soon normal.
Peggy has worked in ERs, ICUs, CCUs, ante-partum, and labor and delivery. For years, she was the only night shift RN in a 105-bed hospital. I have seen her be the calmest, most caring, and most competent nurse in the world at the scene of bloody accidents, and I have read the accolades of her peers. If she freaked out at work the way she does every time one of her dogs sneezes, she would be like the nurses in old movies who screamed and threw trays of food into the air every time they walked in on a dead man.
I have been unhappy this week. Peggy and I argued before her departure, and it left a cloud over my head. Then there is the ever-present arthritis…. I bought a book about chronic pain, but have not opened it because I am too infatuated with Isaac Singer. I wouldn’t believe that anyone could write so well if I had not read it with my own eyes.
I had never given Judaism much thought, having been taught as a child that it was the Old Testament minus the New and therefore but half a religion. If Singer’s Judaism is representative, it has a great deal more depth than that. In fact, it has a great deal more depth than Christianity as I have known Christianity through four churches and three years of college courses. I subjected myself to all this because I was looking for something other than superficial answers to deep questions. I was finally forced to conclude that Christianity is a religion without depth, a religion that admonishes one to believe as a child believes, and whatever good one can say about children, they are not creatures of discernment but credulity.
Jews, as Singer presents them, don’t put stock in unthinking faith. For them, religion doesn’t mean acceptance but struggle, and their behavior toward God (as compared to Christian behavior toward God) reminds me of the way the way the British treat their prime minister versus the way we Americans treat our president. The White House Press Corps approaches the president briefly and deferentially—as if they don’t want to lose the credentials that enabled them to get close enough to approach him.
By contrast, I have seen Tony Blair being questioned by Parliament, and was astounded both by the length of the proceedings and by the bluntness of the queries. The British don’t soft-pedal around their leaders as if to avoid awakening them, and neither do the Jews soft-pedal around God. If anything, they don’t seem to think he’s doing that great a job and, although he remains silent before their inquiries, at least they don’t mistake gullibility for piety.
Last night, I read “The Boy Knows the Truth.” It is about a rabbi who remained physically robust even as he grew on in years. He was prone to depression, and so overcome with sexual lust that he couldn’t find peace even in the midst of his prayers. He saw himself as unworthy to even be a rabbi, but his son was too unstable to replace him, so he did the best he could—which was great by the standards of all who knew him.
His wife was a frail hypochondriac who was repulsed by sex and interpreted her husband’s lust as proof of his impiety. She heaped contempt upon him for decades, and he responded with patience and humility, his enforced chastity causing him to be all the more careful to avoid being alone with other women. Finally, his wife became truly ill (unbeknownst to him) and, on her deathbed, asked that he swear to not remarry. Enraged, he ran to his room and prayed that she would die so that he might at last find someone with whom he could share love and pleasure. She died that very night and in the morning, “The sun emerged like a bloody head from a womb,” and he was too remorseful to carry on. He pronounced himself wicked in body and soul and stayed alone in his room for weeks, his lamp never going out. I quote with one italicized appendum by myself:
“If this was the aim of creation, cursed be creation,” Rabbi Gabriel declared. Actually, the Almighty never answered Job’s questions. All he did was boast about His wisdom and His might.
He fell asleep, and, in a dream, his departed wife appeared to him in beauty and splendor. Even her veil and gown seemed to glow with their own radiance, and her saw her as both perfect matter and perfect spirit.
Rabbi Gabriel began to cry, and he woke up trembling. His bed trembled with him. The sun had risen and a fiery chariot sailed in the sky from the west to the east…
Rabbi Gabriel got up, washed his hands, dressed, and went out into the courtyard on the way to the study house. “Where else can I go?” he said to himself. “To a tavern, to a house of ill repute?” He had awakened with a new vigor and with a hunger for learning. A cheder boy was walking toward him, his face white, his sidelocks disheveled. He carried a Pentateuch, and a paper bag of food. Rabbi Gabriel stopped him. “Do you want to earn two groschen?” he asked.
“What should a Jew do who has lost the world to come?”
The boy seemed to ponder, “Be a Jew.”
“Even though he has lost the world to come?”
“And study Torah?”
“Since he is lost, why Torah?”
“It’s good, eh? As good as candy?”
The boy hesitated for a moment. “Yes.”
“Well, you earned the two groschen.” Rabbi Gabriel put his hand into his right pocket where he kept money for charity, and gave two groschen to the boy. He bent down to him, pinched his cheek, and kissed his forehead. “You are cleverer than all of them. Go and buy yourself some sweets.”
“The boy grabbed the coin and began to run, his sidelocks flying, his fringed garment blowing in the wind. Rabbi Gabriel went straight to the yeshiva. He was afraid that all the students had left, but fourteen or fifteen still remained. They had come to study at sunrise, which was the custom in Klintow. When they saw the rabbi, they arose in awe. The rabbi shouted, “The boy knows the truth!”
And he began to lecture on the section where he had left off weeks ago.
There are those who seek God as obsequiously as a poor man curries the favor of his benefactor, and there are those who seek God because nothing else is conceivable. The former cannot ask hard questions—cannot even entertain hard questions—because they dare not cause offense. Even Jesus, “the meek and lowly,” was angered by persistent questioners and downright infuriated by doubters. How can piety exist in a mind that is dulled by dogma, yet if one dares not question, of what can a religion consist but dogma?
It is a very odd thing—given how deeply and touched I have often been by it—that I almost never read fiction because fiction is impractical. Instead, I read about how to do things like wire a house or run a drain line, although sometimes I will indulge in a wilderness survival story (the knowledge I gain could prove practical) or, at most, a work about health or philosophy. Yet, there is that which comes from the human mind that is greater than practicality because practicality is, after all, a matter of matter rather than of spirit.
There is a depth that is excruciating not because it is sad, but because it is beautiful. All things must possess this depth to those who are awake. Because such people experience the entire universe as a temporary manifestation of an eternal and unified reality, they would make little distinction between the National Enquirer and the writings of Isaac Singer.
However, I would be most surprised if such people really exist because I well know how grievously limited we are by our senses, by our physical needs, by our brief lifespans, and by our brains themselves. A few moments without air, a few days without water, a few splinters under our fingernails, or even a little too much or too little of some hormone, and our every virtue vanishes. Our frailty is so extreme that I know little of good to say about us. Not that I speak with certainty. Quite the reverse.
I must submit that I have strong opinions about any number of things, yet in my saner moments I am utterly unable to determine whether I am right about even one of them. I literally suspect that there is no propaganda machine that is half so efficient and ruthless as my brain. If I could but rip it out and throw it away, I might then be able to think as one who had just awakened from a dream in which he was insane. If there is any certain truth for me—and, I believe, for any of us—it can only lie in death, although I do not expect death to consist of other than extinction.
I love Isaac Singer because Isaac Singer writes about me. This raises the question of whether I want to read about me. Perhaps, I will turn to Camus…a writer who comes close but not too close, a sideswipe rather than a direct hit.
Peggy is visiting relatives in North Carolina, and I am relishing my freedom. Two nights ago, I sorrowfully reached the end of Babbitt, and am now reading the short stories of Isaac Singer. Today, I did various carpentry projects, and sharp shooting pains up and down the outside of my left leg are my punishment. Nothing I do agrees with my knee, although some things disagree a great deal more than others.
I also registered to vote today, two hours before the deadline. It was an ugly choice. I registered the first time because I was twenty-one, and it was a rite of passage. I deregistered twenty-five years later because I had given up on the system. Democrat or Republican, it made no difference to me. More than that, their platforms contain contradictions. Take the phenomenal increase and the even more phenomenal birth rates of illegal aliens, for example. The Democrats favor the creation and enlargement of social programs that attract illegals, yet the Democrats also claim to be the party of the environment. How do they harmonize unchecked population growth and environmental protection? They ignore it.
The Republicans make much of supporting law and order, yet the Republicans also support cheap labor. This prevents them from actually stopping the flow of people who are breaking the law by crossing our borders. Both parties are thus limited to token and self-canceling measures in the face of problems that require substantive action.
For reasons unremembered, I registered again a few years after I deregistered. Maybe there was some ballot measure that I was worked up about—probably a tax hike—since I never get excited about any of the candidates. Then I deregistered a second time because I got tired of being called to jury duty. I served on civil juries, criminal juries, a regular grand jury, a grand jury that heard nothing but child abuse cases for six months, state juries, city juries, and juries in three states. Every two years another jury summons would arrive, and every time I served, I went away feeling that my time had been wasted by a system that has little to do with justice and a lot to do with pandering to scum and enriching lawyers. I knew that if I deregistered, the courts could still find me on the DMV role, but I would have reduced my exposure.
Anyway, after tossing the matter around in my head, I biked over to the voter registration office today and filled out their form. The woman clerk looked at me nervously. After I got home and chanced to pass a mirror, I noticed that I was wearing old and dirty clothes, and remembered that I hadn’t bathed, shaved, or combed my hair for three days. I suspected that my appearance had frightened her, although, in all honesty, I looked no worse than most of the people on downtown sidewalks. Maybe it was my mirrored sunglasses—or maybe it was just her. I wasn’t asked for I.D. I could have snuck in from Mexico yesterday for all anyone cared.
Why did I register? Mostly to vote against a county income tax. Since voters have voted against tax hikes for years, somebody down at the court house got the bright idea that maybe what we need is a whole new kind of tax. Right. I will also vote on some of the voter-sponsored initiatives, although those in power are usually able to ignore the will of the people. For example, a proposal for the West Eugene Parkway passed three times, yet environmentalists on the city council stalled the project until federal money was no longer available.
Then there are the ballot initiatives that are backed by the government. Voters passed a seatbelt law that contained absolutely no penalty. I didn’t quite believe the government’s promise that it only wanted to encourage seatbelt use, rather than coerce it. Sure enough, billboards all over the state soon proclaimed, “Click-it or Ticket.” Trust government? Ever? About anything? Well, if they threaten me, they are more likely to be telling the truth than if they say something I want to hear. For example, I believe them when they say they will confiscate my property at gunpoint if I don’t pay their taxes; but I don’t for a moment believe that they’re going to operate efficiently, reduce corruption, or make the streets safer.
I feel dirty just by registering because my name on the voters’ list implies that I have faith in the good will of government. Sure, government does a lot of good but, at a profound level, government is based upon coercion and, at a practical level, upon greed, lying, and manipulation. Its ratio of evil to good is considerable and ever causes me to question the extent to which I wish to ally myself with it.
Besides, I am embarrassed by my government. I don’t know much about other governments, and I wouldn’t be surprised but what some of them are even worse. The difference is that, for the most part nowadays, they keep their evil at home, whereas we somehow have the idea that it is our place to force ourselves upon the affairs of the world. How much grief could we avoid, and how much money could we save if we would only leave the rest of the planet alone!
Mary Pat and Bob drove over from the coast today, she to attend a club meeting with Peggy, and him to spend time with me. I took him to the natural history museum and to a bookstore. After four hours, we returned home to reunite with Peggy and Mary Pat, but they weren’t back yet, so Bob and I visited. I’m not much on sitting and talking, but he didn’t want to do anything, and the conversation did pass enjoyably enough except for two problems. One was that I hadn’t slept well the night before, and had drunk six cups of triple strength coffee in order to maintain my scintillating social presence. The other was that Bob weighs over 400 pounds, and I was afraid he would break the furniture. He always sits in my most expensive chair, only he’s too wide to fit so he perches on the edge while I wring my hands—metaphorically speaking. Then, when he goes to the bathroom, I worry that he will break the toilet, so I examine both toilet and chair as soon as he leaves.
I feel bad about being so fearful and petty, but feeling bad about how I feel does not change how I feel. Along with my mundane concerns, I also worry about Bob’s health. “How much longer can he last?” I ask myself. “Poor guy can hardly walk…” I know of nothing other than his weight that I might criticize Bob for, yet that alone keeps me from being as close to him as I would like. I see no point in talking to him about it because what could I say? “Bob, you need to lose weight”? “Bob, would you mind sitting on a packing crate when you visit, and going to a service station to take a dump?”
Yeah, it’s pretty bad to wish that someone I care about would go home because I’m worried about a chair and a toilet. “Stop being so fussy, fussy, fussy,” I tell myself. “He doesn’t break his own toilet, so he must know how to go easy on them.” But then I respond, “Well, I guess he doesn’t break his own toilet; for all I know he might break it all the time …It’s not like he is going to say, ‘Damn, Lowell, broke my frigging toilet again—fourth time this month.’”
Like a lot of men, Bob’s not the most intuitive guy in the world. I also think he’s reasonably thick-skinned, but Mary Pat knows that something’s not right with me when they’re here. God knows, I try to hide it, but she’s sharp enough to notice, and I’m sharp enough to know that she notices. This means that I feel the need to do something reassuring to make her doubt her perception. For example, Bob told me today that he likes Stellar Jays, so I found some Stellar Jay pictures on the net after he left and mailed them to him. I might have done this anyway because I like Bob, and I also liked the idea of commemorating what was mostly a good day…I probably even like Bob more because I feel so guilty about my fears that I have to like him in order to feel better about myself.
The day after I last saw her (two months ago), Mary Pat came down with viral meningitis and almost died. Everyone worries about Bob dying because he’s so fat, and then what happens but Mary Pat drops flatter than a pancake and lingers at the doorway of death for days. You just never can know, and that’s the only thing you can know.
I bought a bike light today. Of my seven wrecks in the past fifteen years, two were caused by hitting obstacles in the dark. Of the others, excessive speed caused one; inadequate speed caused two; and dogs caused two.
Ninety percent of bike fatalities are male, and a wreck every two years is more than I can walk away from indefinitely, especially now that I get hurt more easily and don’t heal worth a damn. My problem is that I like to go fast. If I can cross an intersection a hair’s breadth ahead of a speeding car, I’ll do it. If I can take a minute off my cross-town time by tearing through unlit parking lots and alleys, I’ll go for it. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly compelled to speed, but I would feel like a namby-pamby if I slowed down.
Eugene is a great city for maniac bikers because cops mostly ignore you unless you actually collide with them. I hear of people getting $250 tickets for running stop signs, and I know someone who got a ticket for failing to yield the right of way to the car that hit her; yet I rarely see a bike stop for a red-light if nothing is coming; and I regularly see them tearing down pedestrian filled sidewalks, speeding the wrong way on one way streets, passing cars between lanes of traffic; and behaving in other ways that are as reckless as they are obnoxious.
Eugene is also one of the country’s most bike friendly cities in that is has numerous bike lanes, bike racks, bike cages, bike thoroughfares, and bike awareness. When I moved here, I was freaked out by all the bikes because they were smaller than anything I was used to looking for. They seldom had lights; came out of nowhere; never gave signals; and behaved erratically. Now, I am very careful to watch for bicyclists because I know that a large percentage of them are idiots. Consequently, a large percentage of motorists regard them with contempt.
It doesn’t help our image when large numbers of bikers get together and ride abreast down busy streets, purposely creating traffic jams. (Their goal is discourage the use of cars.) Last year, they delayed an ambulance, and this led to public outrage and the issuance of massive numbers of tickets at subsequent events. This in turn led to biker accusations of police unfairness, partiality, and even brutality; so the cops have again backed off.
Eugene is also one of the world’s capitols for bike theft. My last bike light was stolen without its mounting bracket. I had left it on my bike with the assumption that no one was likely to steal an easily detachable light from a practically non-detachable bracket. Since then, I’ve learned that it happens all the time. On another occasion, I had my front wheel stolen, and it’s not unusual to see securely locked bike frames from which every removable part has been taken.
If a business allows patrons to take their bikes indoors, I take my bike indoors; and if I were to buy a new bike, I would deface it to discourage thieves. As it is, I take comfort in the fact that my ten-year-old UniVega is not high on the crooks’ shopping list. It would still be stolen if I didn’t take pains to protect it, but at least I don’t have to take extreme measures. People with new and expensive bikes often use them for recreation only, and keep an old clunker for commuting around town.
Peggy got rid of her bike a decade ago after a wet grate caused it to slide out from under her. She wasn’t hurt much, but she was so shaken that she was still sobbing when she got home twenty minutes later. She felt even worse because, of the many witnesses to the accident, no one offered to help. She only bought a new bike this year because we can no longer hike together.
Peggy is not as good at judging the speed and distance of oncoming cars as I, and I’ve worried for years about her walking to work much less biking (the hospital is twenty blocks and several busy intersections distant). I’ve been pleased to observe that she shows good sense without excessive caution. My theory is that the years she has walked have greatly improved her ability to judge speed and distance.