Cheapskate

The judge reduced our tickets from $257 (each) to $65. At that rate, the city didn’t make any money, and the cop would have done society more good had he sought to enlist our cooperation with a warning rather than to beat us into submission with a fine.

Peggy’s mother lives, so after 15 days in Mississippi, Peggy came home. When she flew down on the 6th, everyone anticipated Mom dying within days. This meant, at worst, two last minute plane fares. Then Mom was moved into hospice, and was taken off her fourteen prescription meds. Not surprisingly, she rallied (or at least she didn’t die), and Peggy predicted a lengthy demise. This meant that we were up to three airline tickets. The more I thought about spending nearly a grand to go to anyone’s funeral, much less the funeral of someone I wasn’t close to, the more I resisted. Of course, I told myself all the right things: “You are not going to bury the dead, but to support the living.” “Family means more than money.” “Peggy’s mother will only die once.” “You can afford it.” “You are an unloving cheapskate.”

I could see that all of these thoughts except the last one were good thoughts, yet I resisted, so, after a few days of feeling down on myself, I began to ask why I was making such a big deal out of a thousand dollars. For a while, all I could think of was that I was cheap, but this didn’t give me any insight. Then one night, I awakened from sleep feeling anxious and with the following sentence running through my head, “Money is all that stands between you and the wolf.” This isn’t entirely true, since Peggy has her nursing skills, and I could work as a handyman if not as a teacher. But occupational skills are dependent upon many factors (such as health); and Peggy is tired of nursing; and I really don’t want to do either of the jobs I could do. The fact that the stock market has taken such a downturn that there have been single days on which our various accounts have posted losses in the thousands of dollars hasn’t boosted my benevolence quotient either.

With greater understanding came greater resistance, and I told myself that I would simply have to be strong in refusing to go because I would be acting for the good of both of us, even if Peggy didn’t see it that way. “Well, but what if she says she will never forgive you?” I asked myself, and concluded that, if she felt that strongly, I would go rather than run the risk that she meant it.

Peggy came home with a $3,000 check that her father gave her for our airfares. “Of course, I can’t cash this,” she said, and I assured her that I knew someone who could—something she would have known when she accepted it.

I used to wonder how I could survive without my parents, but, now that they’re gone, I’m just glad to be on the other side of the experience. If Mom were a dog, we would euthanize her and call it an act of mercy, but, since she’s a human, her suffering and the suffering of her loved ones must be prolonged.

Wimawhala Encampment

I just came from a meeting of the Wimawhala Encampment, which is a lodge that I joined last winter because it is dying. There are six of us, and each is an officer. We call ourselves patriarchs, and our emblem is a nomadic tent. Instead of a gavel, our “chief patriarch” calls for order with the top of a walking staff. Our other officers are a treasurer, a scribe, a high priest, and two wardens. I am the junior warden, which means that I will assume the role of chief patriarch in two years. I am also the junior warder in my Masonic Lodge, so I’m expected to move into the worshipful master’s station there in two years.

There are two ways in which I look at my lodges. One is to think that much of what we do (like using the top of a staff as a gavel) is just too silly for words. The other is to ponder our symbolism (the Encampment’s tent stands for safety and hospitality) and to listen to the words we say, and to think that lodges are awfully sweet. Ironically, if lodges were flourishing, I probably wouldn’t fit in.

Awe of the Mighty

Last night, I dreamed that I met an older man, a neurologist, who was everything that I am not—suave, urbane, noted in his career, a patron of the arts, knowledgeable of the great museums of Europe, and, I suspected, gay. He invited me home, and I was flattered. He was a collector, as I soon learned, and his collection consisted, in the main, of industrial-size diesel engines, million dollar sports cars, and grand pianos. He allowed his many guests to play the pianos, but the rest were virginal, and, except for the yellow diesel engines, white. He had a strict rule that his guests wash in front of one another at an ancient lavatory before his always formal dinners, and it was then that I awakened. I was awed by this man as I was awed by other such men who paid attention to me when I was younger. I adored my awe just as I adored this rich man who was everything I am not.

I have learned too much of the personal lives of the Mozarts and the Bobby Fischers, and I have seen the mighty fall quickly and unexpectedly to be in awe of anyone in a generalized sense. A little metal through the skull of a John Kennedy, or a little less blood to the brain of a Tim Russert…. The best of us are like bowls of ice cream on the edge of a wobbly table on a hot day in a roomful of hungry children. The exact course of our lives might be unknown, but an early end can be confidently expected.

I miss being in awe, of seriously thinking that my chemistry professor could mix up any magical concoction if it suited him; or, in a much earlier memory, of believing that there were experts who could perform any task whatsoever—including that of saving a president whose brains had been blown out.

I see a paradox in my life. You could show me a man (or a woman), and you could say to me, “Lowell, that man’s IQ is half again as high as yours, and he can learn twice as fast and remember twice as long. Now, what do you think of that?”
“I think that’s very nice,” I would answer, “but of what use is it to me?” “Well, are you not awed? Do you not feel that he is smarter than you, and therefore inherently better qualified for almost any mental pursuit?”
“No. I just believe that our gifts differ.”
“But he has achieved so much, and you so little.”
“I am smart enough for my own purposes, and I have no doubt but what there are ways in which I am smarter than he. If he could play music brilliantly, or perform a complex surgery, or carry pi to the thousandth decimal point; of such gifts, I would be in awe. But of the man himself, never.”

The best cure for awe is a close observance of other people, the goal being to appreciate them for what they are without dismissing them for what they are not.

I knew that the man in my dream would eventually ask to give me a blowjob. I was not aroused by this, but neither was I repulsed as I would have been had he wanted me to give him a blowjob. My decision then was a matter of whether the value he had given to me made it desirable that I repay him in such a manner, there being, I knew, no other payment in which he was half so interested. I thought back to another older man—a real man—I knew, a man whom I loved, and who killed himself before he was fifty. After his death, I thought about what a small thing it would have been for me to have said yes versus what a great thing it was to him that I had said no, and I wished I had said yes. I couldn’t imagine that such an unenthusiastic yes would have given him satisfaction, but, as I said, it seemed in retrospect a small thing to have offered.

Double traffic tickets

Peggy and I got simultaneous traffic tickets last week for running the same stop sign on our bikes. All we could figure was that the cops were inspired by the recent death of a bicyclist two blocks away. Since then, I have diligently stopped at every stop sign. I am the only bicyclist who I have seen do this, and the others look at me strangely as they go around. I resented the $257 (each) tickets. There are two sets of laws. One set is written in the books. The other set is the ones that are actually enforced. For example, Eugene has a law against car camping on public streets, but the cops won’t enforce it. Instead, they advise complainants to ask St. Vincent DePaul to come out and help the campers (St. Vincent’s has a city contract to do this). Personally, I don’t want to help street campers—I just want them gone.

Justified tickets are easier to accept than are tickets based upon the arbitrary power of the issuing officer. When I asked our cop why we were being singled out, he assured me that the traffic laws are always applied equally. I hold that lie against him infinitely more than I do the ticket, because I could see where the ticket might have come out of his desire to protect the public, but I couldn’t see how the lie came out of anything but his knowledge that he could bullshit me all he wanted, and I would have to stand there and take it for as long as he wanted. Being constrained under threat of violence to wait passively on the curb while a cop writes you a ticket is a mini jail sentence.

I set about trying to get our tickets reduced (by writing a letter to the judge) as soon as I got home. Peggy and I were supposed to sign below one of four paragraphs on the back of our tickets before I took them—along with my letter—downtown. These paragraphs were badly written to the point of having numerous grammatical errors, and neither of us could figure out whether we were supposed to sign below paragraph two or below paragraph three as they seemed to say pretty much the same thing. Two days and numerous tries later, we still hadn’t figured it out, so Peggy signed both paragraphs on the back of her ticket the morning she flew to Mississippi. Our plan was that I would find out which one she was supposed to have signed, and cross the other out.

When I asked the lady behind the counter at the municipal court which paragraph was the right paragraph, she said she was not qualified to offer legal advice and advised me to “seek the services of an attorney.” Of course, it was an attorney who wrote the stuff in the first place. Lawyers make money by making the law as incomprehensible as possible. Since they can’t agree among themselves what it says, still more lawyers have to be hired to take matters to court where lawyer-judges decide. Sometimes many lawyer-judges in many courts over many years are needed but the lawyers are okay with it since they are all making hundreds of dollars an hour. As I read on the back of a pre-folks t-shirt, “A lot of people are alive simply because killing them would land you in jail.”

Mom nearing death

Peggy’s mother is dying. She is sometimes rational for brief periods during the day, but at night she forgets where she is and who her family are. She then becomes frantic and pleads for help, sometimes all night long. In the daytime, she is apt to become stuck on the same sentence which she repeats without pause hour after hour. One day, it was “Like sands through the hourglass, so go the days of our lives.” Other times, her mantra is a continuation of her pleading from the previous night.

Peggy is in Mississippi standing vigil. My parents being dead, I tend to focus on what a relief it is to have that kind of thing out of the way, and to wish that it could be out of Peggy’s way too. “Mom” is miserable. The lives of her loved ones are stuck while they await her passing, and, at 78, her husband won’t live long enough to pay off the medical bills.

Like, have a nice day, folks.

(This entry contains several instances of the F-word.)

I don’t remember the last time I heard the word people. I grew up thinking of folks as a low class word for family—something Jed Clampett would have used. After 9/11, I was shocked to hear George Bush refer to al-Qaeda as “folks,” but I remembered that George Bush was the very person who had caused me to lose all respect for a Harvard education. Next, I noticed that black people on a NPR program aimed at a black audience only used the word folks to refer to two or more people. I was disappointed, but observed that it was, after all, not a program that targeted the educated. Now, everyone on NPR—interviewers and interviewees alike—uses the word folks exclusively. Nobel Laureates are folks. Neo-Nazis are folks. The Founding Fathers are folks. Polygamists, entomologists, and Arctic explorers are folks.

It is both a blessing and a curse of aging to realize that things are not as they used to be, and to further realize that people who don’t remember how they used to be are probably unaware of the changes (an observation that keeps me from taking historians too seriously). Yesterday, a store clerk told me, “Have a fabulous day.” She flashed a toothy smile, which caused me to wonder how many times a shift she was able to carry off the performance. I speculated that she must be, like, so totally bored with “Have a nice day” that she was simply trying to come up with an alternative. As I turned to leave, I said, “Thank you,” “No problem,” she answered. “At least there’s that,” I muttered as I wondered when “you’re welcome” became passé.

I first heard “Have a nice day” in 1974. The teacher in the classroom next to mine said it to each of the thirty students in each of her five classes as they walked out the door. She never personalized it with a name; never said “Study hard,” “See you tomorrow,” “Don’t forget to bring the homework that you claim to have forgotten,” or even “Later Gator.” “Have a nice day” it was, 150 times a day, 750 times a week. Her students behaved exactly as they would had she said nothing, had she not even been there.

Editorialists opposed the nice day mantra on grounds of inanity, and because it was worded as an imperative. I waited in vain for the fad to pass. Thirty years later, I’m still waiting. I never observe language moving uphill. New words are added at an astonishing rate, but the overall effect is to express the same sentiments with ever more of the same imprecise words, which means that a great deal of what is said is meaningless.

“Me and him, like, you know, like, fucking think that not being able to smoke in a fucking bar is, like, totally fucked—you know.” When I eavesdrop on conversations among the young (to whom one my age is invisible), this is often the level of discourse that I hear. “We despise the new law against smoking in bars” would do, so why the excess? I would have supposed that the ever-increasing volume of words that comes at us everyday would have inspired us to speak more succinctly, but I’ve concluded that it is this very volume that causes individuals to hold the floor as long as possible. So, what do you do when you want to keep talking, but you have nothing more to say? Of course! You, like, uh, you know, like, fucking drag it out.

We are also under-educated. A Russian penpal wrote that she learned to speak English better in a few years than most Americans do in a lifetime. She had met a great many of us, and concluded that we are fat, boorish, spoiled, ignorant, and would have already gone down the toilet were it not for our inherited wealth. I wanted to defend us, but I had no defense. All I could think to do was to ask her why, if America is so bad, thousands of Russians are trying to move here whereas no one from here is trying to move there, but such a talk-radio tactic would have been an evasion rather than an answer.