Credo est

Part 1

Pretend that I am right; that our every thought and action is determined by the unalterable laws of cause and effect; that we are like so many rocks being tossed about as they roll down a hillside.

Peggy returned from settling her mother’s estate in Mississippi with a collection of family photos. Among those photos were school pictures from the 1940s of Peggy’s aunt for whom Peggy was named.

When she was in her forties, Aunt Peggy shot herself while lying in her bathtub. Her family came home to find her helpless with a collapsed lung. She recovered.

Aunt Peggy soon shot herself again. This time, she was left a quadriplegic. Several years later, she died.

Had I been a boy in her school, I would have tried to date Aunt Peggy. I know this because I like the way her eyes look in those old photos—mischievous, sensual, flirtatious—qualities irresistible to young males... Would you want to know how you will die?

I look at Aunt Peggy’s old photos, so filled with promise and life, and I wonder what she would have said had an angel offered her a vision of her final years? Among all possible lives, hers would have been among those that might be described as purest hell.

I knew her before she shot herself, but having moved to Oregon, I never visited her afterwards. It would have meant a long trip and, knowing something about her life, I had no thought that she would talk to me openly.

Her family blamed Peggy’s husband for her attempts at suicide. It’s easier to blame someone, anyone, other than your daughter or sister, I suppose. But if I am right, she had no choice. She never, from the foundation of the universe, had any choice. Would it have mattered? Unless we were able to know where our choices would lead, the freedom to make different choices would be of questionable benefit. I’ll give you an example.

A local man was a professional bodybuilder. He wasn’t among those who are pumped up on steroids, but a man who was sincerely devoted to healthy living. One day, a squirrel ran into the spokes of his bicycle. When he woke up in the hospital, he was informed that he was now a quadriplegic, and that he might never be able to live without a respirator. He insisted that the respirator be removed; it was, and he died.

Two people on opposite routes reach the same end; the one who never wanted to die chose death, while the one who longed for death continued to eat, and by eating, to live. I can make no sense of this, and if I am right, there is no sense to be made, because neither really got to choose. Their paths were determined from the foundation of the universe.


Part 2

I’ll tell you something that I have learned about suffering. Suffering admits no visitors. No matter how much you want to be understood, you cannot; or at least, I cannot; or at least, I feel that I cannot. This is mostly bad, but it is not altogether bad. Sometimes during the day, I will be thinking about the hours I lie awake hurting, and there will come to me a certain nostalgia, an almost glad anticipation of the coming night. Yet I would not for the space of a heartbeat choose to suffer. It is another irony to see some poorly defined good in that which I wish with my whole heart to avoid.

What is this good?

The recognition that I am thrown back upon myself to survive such nights. I subsist on hope for a better future, it is true, but I cannot help but think I would want to survive even if I knew I would suffer equally every night for the rest of my life. I cannot explain this except to say that suffering brings the possibility of redemption. But what is redemption? Redemption is freedom from appearances. Redemption is to know reality at its worst, yet to still love reality. Or so it comes to me. Maybe I am insufferably pollyannish; I suspect I am.

Why?

I knew a man who lived across the street from another man whose wife died. No one saw the bereaved for weeks after the funeral, so they finally broke into his house. He was there, in his chair, still dressed in the clothes that he wore to the funeral. He had sat, and he had urinated, and he had defecated, and he had eventually died.

If Peggy were to die, I would know suffering. I often think to myself that my situation is bad, but I know that it is merely a stubbed toe compared to her death. The sun can revive or burn. Suffering can strengthen or destroy. There are no guarantees. There is no rationale. There is no benefic plan. There is only death after life, but not, so far as I can see, life after death. When the boulder reaches the bottom, it stays at the bottom.

I judge my life - Part 5 - Best friends

Dogs. I’ve always had dogs. First, there was Mike who was old when I was born and wouldn’t allow anyone but family near me. I use to pee on Mike as he lay on the ground, his great tail thumping the earth. Mike went into the woods one day when he was seventeen and never came back. I was told that it was the way of dogs to die alone, and I believed it at the time. Now, I don’t know. I’ve had few dogs who got to choose.

The mailman missed Mike terribly, having run over him several times through the years. Dogs regard mailmen as persistent intruders who would steal everything and kill everyone if not chased away daily, and it’s hard to convince them otherwise since, by all appearances, they are 100% successful in protecting their homes and families. Everyday, the mailman comes, the dog barks, and the mailman leaves. It illustrates David Hume’s conviction that, just because one event follows another, we can’t assume that the one caused the other; but how many dogs have read David Hume?

I don’t know what dog came after Mike, there being so many, and them dying so young. Cars killed them for the most part, either outright or later. Some might have been saved, but country people didn’t take their dogs to the vet; they just got new dogs. Peggy and I treat Bonnie and Baxter like children, but when I was a child, dogs were more like to contract laborers. In return for barking at intruders, we fed them, wormed them, pulled their ticks, and dipped them in creosote when they got the mange. That was the deal, and dogs were too loyal to form unions.

Our dogs invariably came from places on the side of the road where people dumped their garbage. In a typical scenario, Dad would be scavenging in one of these dumps when he would find a litter of puppies. When he got home, he would tell Mama about them, and being softhearted, she would tell him to go back and get them, which was surely what he wanted to do anyway, or else why would he have said anything? They were usually too young to eat solid food, so she would feed them with a doll’s bottle. When they got bigger, she would give away all but one or two.

I got to name our dogs, and not being a terribly original kid, I always used the same three names—Wolf, Tippy, and Sassy. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was way more than the cats got; they were all called Tiger. I wrote the following true stories in 1960 when I was ten. I copy them as written.


Sassy

“Sassy was about the best dog I ever had. She was very playful. She wasn’t famous are anything like that. But she just gave you a warm feeling.

“We found her and 4 other puppies in a ditch on the roadside. She had a pretty color of white. Dad did that is when he was coming home from work during a rain one morning when it was to wet to work. He came home and told us about them, and mama told him to bring them home. Gay and I went with him. I don’t know the date. We fed them out of a doll bottle.

“Sassy only lived to be a little over a year old. I remember we used to get out and play with her and the other dogs. We gave all of the puppies away expect two.

“When Sassy died I was raking the grass, and dad was cutting it. And a car turned around in our driveway and Sassy started to chase it, and as soon as it got in the road Sassy got under one of the wheels. She turned and ran for the house and fell in the front yard. I ran and got mama and dad they said she was breeding inside. In about ten minutes later she died. She is berried in the back yard of our house. And we berried her on the same day. Gay and I prayed and singed for her.

“She left five puppies just like before. When she died I know she was trying to tell me something. I think she was trying to tell me she loved me and to take care of her puppies. She died in the evening of June the 19, 1959. I wrote this on the evening of January 13, 1960. I call the day that she died Dogs Day.”


Wolf

“I don’t remember much about Wolf, but I do remember he killed chickens. Well anyway, he was one of Sassys puppies. When Sassy died he was a orpan. That was the second time we had five orpan puppies.

“After Sassy died we to care of him and the other puppies. They became pretty big to. Even bigger than Aunt Annies puppies “Pal,”

“When got grown he started killing chickens. We whipped him but he wouldn’t stop.

“We used to play with him a and our other dogs in the yard. He fought the other dogs off so he could have all the food. He was very rough.

““Oh Yes,” I almost forgot we was talking about him killing chickens. So one Sunday we came home a found about 5 chickens dead.

“Ma Ma wanted Dad to shoot him with my new gun. But we decided to take him off. That is all I remember about Wolf.”

The End


My great-great uncle, King James Newby lived in Arkansas with his wife, Molly, and a pack of coonhounds. Molly complained bitterly about the dogs barking, digging, chasing chickens, and pulling laundry off the line. After years of being ignored, she gave King an ultimatum: “King, either the dogs go, or I do.” His answer was: “Me and the dogs are sure gonna miss you, Molly,” whereupon Molly kept her word and moved to Mississippi. When my father visited Uncle King years later, he found the old man living alone on a diet that consisted mostly of eggs, the shells of which he threw into a barrel beside his woodstove. After a few days, my father got up the nerve to ask, “Uncle King, do you ever think about taking another wife?” “Humph,” King snorted, “I’d rather sleep with a wet dog than with any woman that ever lived.” Thus is illustrated the loyalty of the men in my family.

Stupid old stupid old

Some fascinating—no, unbelievable—geographic facts:

The southern terminus of the Cascade Mountains is Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They exit the state east of Meridian and end somewhere in Alabama.

Portland is the largest city in Mississippi. It lies in a north south line between New Orleans and Memphis.

There is an area of small barren mountains just southeast of Brookhaven, Mississippi. I spent 37 years in the area without even knowing about them. Now, they are among my favorite places to visit.

The eternal snows of Mt. Hood loom large just east of Jackson, Mississippi.

Mississippi is known for its mild summers.

I often encounter such facts in my dreams, and am challenged to make sense of them. Since they are facts, I am able to do so. When I awaken, I realize that I had my facts somewhat, shall we say, confused, and I am forced to abandon them. I had rather have the dream facts because, in my dreams, Mississippi is an improved version of Oregon, and I am eager to move back.

Peggy never confuses the two states in her dreams, but then she wasn’t a Mississippian; she was an Air Force brat with Mississippi roots. She has already lived in Oregon far longer than she ever lived in Mississippi. When she was a kid, she hated the place so much that she made a vow to never fall in love with a man who lived there. Then she met me.

If I had my rathers, I had rather live someplace close enough to Mississippi that I could easily visit (it being 2,500 miles from the Willamette Valley). The problem is that I don’t know where that would be because I need wilderness, and wilderness is hard to find in the South. Here, people become lost in the woods while taking a Sunday afternoon hike, and they are NEVER found; their BODIES are never even found. You would have to work really hard to pull that off in the Deep South. You can hardly even escape the sound of people in the South. Here, there is wilderness. Here, there are mountains. I couldn’t give those up. But today, on my blog, I heard from a California woman who grew up 20 miles from where I did, and I felt that longing, that kinship that I never feel for someone who grew up twenty miles from Eugene.

Being from Mississippi is like getting a stain on your best shirt that won’t wash out, and that people from other places never seem to get on their shirts. You don’t even know why you can’t rid yourself of stupid old Mississippi because, after all, what is so special about the stupid old place? The stupid, humid, suffocating heat? The stupid fireants? The stupid mildewed everything? The stupid, provincial, impoverished, undereducated, pathetically obese, and grotesquely waddling fundamentalist Republicans who consistently outvote their Democratic counterparts who look like themselves only in a different color, and who don’t have much interest in voting despite all the rigmarole of the ‘60s? The stupid impossibility of finding whole grain foods or vegetarian options? Sure! Who wouldn’t want to live in Mississippi? Same humongous box stores and tacky fast food joints as in the rest of the country only in a Third World setting with no alternatives.

“Why, Snow, I haven’t seen ya’ll in a coon’s age. How are your folks?”

“They’re dead.”

“Oh, my, that’s just too bad. I didn’t know they was that old. You know, everybody used to say that your mamma was just the best little cook they ever saw, and that your daddy was such a hard worker. The last time I saw them was out at Mt. Zion when Uncle Elbert died, and they was looking kinda poorly then come to think of it. Look now, I gotta run, but don’t make such strangers of yourselves. Ya’ll drive out and see us sometime when you’re back home.” Course, we might like you about as much as we like pus from a dog's anus, but Mississippi don’t call itself the Hospitality State for nothing, so we have to talk like this even when we don’t mean it.

Why, why can’t I be done with Mississippi? I have no family there (except for one sister who would NOT be glad to see me); I have no friends there; I own no property; there’s nothing in particular that I’m dying to get back to. Missing such a place is like having a mental illness; it is self-destructively irrational. Still…

Peggy’s mother died there last summer, and I told Peggy that if she wanted to move back to be near her father during his declining years that I would be willing. She looked at me as if I had offered to hang her upside down with no clothes on and dunk her in Crater Lake (way deep, way high, way cold). But what if she had said yes? I would have gulped, but I would have moved. God knows, I would have moved. I would have regretted it before I saw Eugene, Oregon, in the rearview mirror, but I would have moved.

I judge my life - Part 4- The unpainted house











I passed my first ten years in an unpainted house (photo 1) on a gravel road (photo 2). It stood a few hundred yards from where Peggy and I were building our new home.

I was often lonely because the only other children in the area were cousins who were a few years older than I and whose mother (my father’s sister) didn’t like my “city woman” mother, and who consequently didn’t like me. The fact that my Granny—with whom we lived—made no bones of the fact that she loved me more than she had ever loved anyone didn't help relations. Yet, I remember those years fondly because my father (photo 3) was saner than he would later become, and as far as I knew, my family was a happy family.

Until my sister was born in 1954, five years after myself, I was the center of the universe to my parents, my father’s parents, and an elderly dog named Mike (photo 4) whose fangs kept the rest of humanity at bay. I remember peeing on Mike as he lay in the dirt flopping his big tail against the ground. I considered this great fun.

Our other close neighbor was the Floyd King family on whose property was a gravel pit that was home to the water moccasin that killed their little boy. Like a lot of people, the Kings had a section of their yard that was swept. A swept yard is a child’s delight—cool, non-itchy, and smooth for toy cars and trucks.

Grandpa was opposed to indoor toilets for sanitary reasons, as he said, and even after we got electricity, it was prone to fail after every rain, so kerosene lamps lined the mantle. Our water came from a well that consisted of 8” concrete pipe that was sold in sections and descended a hundred feet or more into the earth. The long and slender well-bucket was raised and lowered by a hand crank, and had a float in the bottom that opened to allow water to enter, and closed when the bucket was full. I considered the well a mysterious and fascinating place that descended almost to the center of the earth and welcomed the toss of an occasional pebble followed sometime later by a muted splash.

We burned coal for heat—and perhaps for cooking for all I know. This now strikes me as odd since south Mississippi was hundreds of miles from the nearest coal mine. Yet, we had a little outbuilding that contained nothing but coal. Coal was an exceptional substance, unlike anything else I had seen or imagined, but I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t like the mess it made. We had other outbuildings as well, all of which were covered with unpainted planks that had grayed in the weather. One was for smoking meat, another for chickens, a third for hogs, a fourth for tools, and a fifth for a garage. The biggest one was for cattle, and it had a loft. Only horse nettles grew near it, probably because cattle wouldn’t eat them. I say this in retrospect; I don’t remember being curious about much of anything at the time.

A little way down the gravel road was a gristmill, and an occasional mule-driven wagon bearing a family of Negroes passed the house. Sometimes, they let me ride with them.

The Mississippi heat was pervasive for eight months out of the year, and even worse at night because my mother didn’t believe in fans or open windows after sunset. “Drafts” and “night air” carried disease, she said. She also worried about buzzards. The South surely leads the nation as the home of choice for vultures, and my mother was convinced that they dropped germs. She would look out from time to time when I was outside playing, and if she saw them circling high overhead in gentle glides on their great wings, she would call me in somewhat frantically.

Rattlers, cottonmouths, copperheads, red wasps, yellow jackets, and roosters were more realistic threats. The one I feared most was roosters because that was the one that plagued me most, but my worst encounter was with a speckled guinea hen. Unknown to me, it had its nest in a ditch, and it flew atop my head one day when I came too close to the eggs. I ran toward the house screaming as it clawed my scalp, but I nearly forgot my terror when the screen door flung open and my elderly Granny (photo 5) came charging across the yard with blood in her eye and a broom in her hands. It was surely the first time she had run in decades, and it was no doubt the last. One species’ maternal instincts had clashed with another’s, and I’m happy to say that mine won.

When I was almost five, Grandpa died. I have pictures of us together (photo 6), but I only have one memory of him, and that was because he did something unimagined; he scolded me. I was sitting among the chickens at the time (photo 7), and all of us were happily eating from the same trough. I didn’t even know he was around when he suddenly began yelling as if I had done something terrible. This man who had beaten his own sons had never even raised his voice to me, his favorite grandson.

Soon after his death, we got a bathroom, and it was also about this time that my father gave up his job in town and built a small grocery store in front of our house. He and my mother also farmed, but when the store burned one night, the money from farming wasn’t enough, so he eventually went back to maintaining the holdings of Gerald Kees, a rich man and the local Buick dealer. I still have the melted coins from the cash register. My father naturally suspected arson.

When I was eight, my father gave me my first real gun, a .22/.410 over-and-under (two barrels, one atop the other). I went hunting alone that first day, and killed a bird that was singing in a pecan tree. Its shattered body didn’t give me the feeling of triumph I expected, and I sought to atone for my sin by having my Granny cook it for me. I used my gun mostly for shooting opossums that got in the hen house. I left their bodies for my father to remove.

I can’t say now why my father exposed me to death when I was so young. Every Sunday morning, he would have me kill a chicken for dinner. I was too young to kill it outright, so he would hold it while I sawed its head off with a butcher knife. Then, he would toss it from us, and we would watch it “dance” as the blood splattered. I didn’t know what death meant or that a chicken could suffer, so I laughed. One day, I saw my father kill a stray dog with a piece of pipe, and since my best friends were dogs, I began to understand death, and my laugher stopped. Maybe he thought he was making me tough so I could better face life, but it didn’t work.

I judge my life - Part 3 - Breaking ground



I didn’t have to think long about what to do next because I had accepted Thoreau’s teachings about simplicity and the Mother Earth News avowal that happiness is best found in rural self-sufficiency. My parents owned eight acres of woodland that they gave to Peggy and me for a house site, and my semi-retired contractor father helped us build a home that had been designed as a ski lodge. At 68, he could still put in a full day’s work. The 1,000 square foot house was bigger than I wanted, my preference being a three-room shotgun (the rooms in a line from front to back) without a bathroom or electricity. Peggy and I settled on the “ski lodge” after she said I would be living alone if I built the house I wanted. The necessity of such compromise was what made a bachelor of Thoreau (that and being refused by the one woman he proposed to plus probable homosexual yearnings), but bachelorhood was not for me.

We broke ground at Route 4, Bogue Chitto, Mississippi, in the late summer of 1977. Our only “blueprint” was a drawing in Popular Mechanics. Dad was definitely the brains of the outfit. I wanted to be more involved in the planning, but his help was implicitly contingent upon him making the structural decisions. This would come back to haunt me. For example, Peggy and I decided on an aluminum roof, but didn’t realize until years afterward that his rafter choice was based upon the assumption that we would never want shingles.

My father was a hard man to work with because of his temper. He would literally curse a 2x4 (“God damn the goddamn mother-fucking goddamn worthless-ass son of a bitching nail-bending mother-fucking goddamn 2x4 to hell, goddamn it!”), exploding every half hour or so into a screaming litany of profanity that sounded like a Satanic Gregorian chant performed by monks on meth. He would throw tools, strangle on sputum, and curse his, “whore of a mother for giving birth to a worthless son of a bitch like me.” Such behavior took all of the pleasure out of house building, yet I bit my tongue because I didn’t think I could pull it off without him. Only once did I complain, “Dad, it’s hard for me to respect you when you talk like that.” “Fuck you. I have no respect for myself, and if you don’t want my help, you just say so, because I sure as hell don’t have to be here.”

On her days off, Peggy would join our little crew, and everything would go a great deal better because my father loved her like a daughter, and would pull back from the worst of his fits. He needed constant emotional management because he would otherwise conclude that people were against him, and Peggy and I were the only ones who were able to avoid pushing his many buttons—even my mother and sister were clueless. Peggy came to have more influence over him than anyone, and the one time she went head-to-head with him, he backed down. I don’t mean it in a prurient way when I say that the greatest love my father ever had was possibly my wife. He would have stood between her and a runaway tank.

Despite his temper, I never saw my father hit anyone. He had been an ardent barroom brawler in his younger years, but he never, to my knowledge, hit my mother or even spanked my sister and me. He always appeared so close to losing control that we lived in fear of him anyway, and my fear progressed into a fear of all men. I always had male friends, but I could never bring myself to lower my guard completely. For example, I wouldn’t lie down if they were standing for fear they would lose their minds and kill me before I could defend myself.

Peggy had insanity in her family too, and she and I have sometimes debated which was worse, with each of us defending our side as less insane. As I write about my father, I can see more clearly than ever how bad off he was. Growing up in his household, I realized he had problems, and I was ashamed of him from my earliest years. Yet, he was never locked away; he had above average intelligence; and he worked 55 hours a week to support his family…What I’m getting at is that it isn’t necessarily in a kid’s best interest to know how bad a situation is. If he can think of it as fairly normal, he can better survive it.

I could write much more about my father’s mental problems, but even though he has been dead since 1994, I don’t think it’s right to share just anything at just any time. I can only tell pieces of his story inasmuch as they’re important to my story.

Where were they?


I know what $100 will buy when I am in dire straits, but I have no idea of the worth of my friends, and to have them betray me makes those straits even more dire. I would therefore offer that, although both are desirable, money is preferable to friendship.
Ah, but money doesn’t care about you. It can’t put its arms around you or bring you gifts.

No, but my friends might not do these things either. It is also true that most of the things we need don’t care about us. The food we eat, the air we breathe, our winter clothes, our snug homes; these things don’t even know we exist. I’m not saying that friendship is worthless; I’m just saying that it’s a mistake to rely upon it.

Agreed, you might not be able to rely upon them to be there for you exactly when you need them and exactly in the way you need them; but why not be appreciative for what they do give?

Just because my friends don’t give me everything I need doesn’t necessarily make what they do give meaningless, but look at it this way. If you fall into a pit and someone brings you flowers instead of a ladder, what have they accomplished? I’ll tell you: they’ve given themselves the gift of feeling good about themselves, and I think this is the real motive behind a lot of charity. Otherwise, people would not ignore the expressed needs of the supposed objects of their generosity.

After surgery on my right shoulder, Shirley, a supposedly good friend who is also a neighbor and who had gone walking with me almost every week for two decades, wouldn’t walk with me at all despite my request that she help by taking charge of one of one of the dogs (the blind one that walks on my right). She didn’t give a reason, but she was training to walk a half marathon, so I assumed that maybe her feet hurt, or maybe she didn’t feel the need for the short non-aerobic walks to which I was limited. She did, however, bring me a potted plant that I was unable to set out. Am I not grateful? Well, not very. My friend of 23 years chose to ignore my request for help without offering an explanation, but for reasons that I had to guess and that appeared trivial.

I think you misuse your friends when you expect them to do things that you could afford to pay someone to do.

Yes, I could pay someone to walk the dogs, and I could get my own exercise by walking alongside my employee, and I could get my social needs met by talking with my employee as we walked, but I want friendship to mean more than having someone to go to a movie with at everyone’s convenience. I want friendship to offer a survival advantage. I want to care for and protect my friends, and I want my friends to care for and protect me, and this experience has taught me that I can’t even depend upon people who have been my friends for a quarter of a century to do the very thing that they have often done with me for fun and exercise.

My friends have literally spent less time with me than usual. Maybe I reminded them too much of their own mortality, but in any event, they acted like I was contagious. For example, Peggy happened to be home today, so she went walking with the dogs and me, and we ran into Kurt near the library. He said he had to run because he and Jackie were going walking in the South Hills. This meant that they had to drive past my house, yet despite my request that they go walking with me, they didn’t invite me. Why? People who I hardly knew have done more for me more than people I trusted.

I also want my friendships to have depth. If my “friends” don’t care enough to help me in even minor ways, how am I to respond when they ask how I’m doing? Am I to open my heart, or am I to assume that they are just making conversation? I worked hard before my surgery so that everything I could do for myself in advance, I did do for myself in advance. It is simply not in me to ask people to do for me that which I would not do for them.

Maybe you chose your friends unwisely, or maybe they didn’t consider your surgery to be that serious.

I think I did choose unwisely, but how could I have known? They said they loved me. They stayed in my life for years. I didn’t see them betraying other people. Well, come to think of it, I did sometimes see one of them betray other people, but since he was also capable of being unusually generous, I overlooked these betrayals, not completely but somewhat.

As for not considering my surgery serious, it wasn’t serious in terms of life and death, but it was serious in terms of disability and emotional trauma, and I tried to make that clear. There comes a point when I no longer see the point in talking to people. For example, when Shirley asks me now how I am (which she only does as part of a larger conversation), I see no point in telling her. My feelings are deep and personal, and not to be shared alongside news about the weather with someone who I don’t think really cares. I had three surgeries last year, and will have at least two this year, so maybe some people have come to take bad health as a given in my life, and therefore of little note. This means that they might not have taken my surgery seriously, but that’s one hell of a disconnect, and I don’t know what to do about it.

My challenge is to somehow avoid becoming that which I hate, namely a self-absorbed person who keeps his distance—who is incapable of being more than a friendly acquaintance. One of the most charming and seemingly loving people I ever knew was also a person who equated being needed with being trapped, and who often ended friendships overnight and without explanation. She was like an elaborate movie set that looked like a mansion on the outside but was empty inside, and I don’t want to be like that. Yet, how could I find it in my heart to respond lovingly if one of these people who failed me should now become ill or injured?

I know that I sometimes fail people. For example, I receive gifts slightly more than I give them, and I remember other people’s birthdays somewhat less than they remember mine. The truth is that I don’t much value gifts. I personally don’t want anything, and I don’t usually have a clue what someone else might want. But I do try to be there when people are in distress. To me, that’s the core of friendship, and things like remembering birthdays are an option. Maybe other people feel differently, and think I’m a piss poor friend for not remembering their birthdays. Instead of, “Do unto others as your would have them do unto you,” a better proverb might be, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

I am trying to keep an open heart here, but the fact is that 43 days after surgery, I’m in more pain than ever, and I’m worried about my future. It’s not a good time for me to show love. Today, I can barely be civil.

"The many men so beautiful! And they all dead did lie: And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on; and so did I."

When the pain started, I couldn’t sleep on my right side. After awhile, I couldn’t sleep on my left side either. Then, I couldn’t sleep on my back. Sleeping on my stomach was out because I use a sleep apnea mask, so I moved to a recliner. My shoulders hurt too much even there to sleep unless I put pillows under my elbows, and that didn’t help a lot. Three and half years have passed during which the pain has been better at times and worse at times, but mostly worse.

I saw the doctor Tuesday—39 days after surgery on my right shoulder—and he said the pain I’m having could be caused by a couple of things, either of which will require a second surgery on my right shoulder before I have surgery on my left shoulder. He ordered an MRI, which I had yesterday. People get MRIs and CT scans mixed up, but the difference is that the first kind of image is made with magnets and the second with radiation. For an MRI, you lie on a little trolley and are rolled into a long, narrow, and extremely noisy tube. I can best liken the noise to a whole lot of people rhythmically banging pieces of scrap iron together in a junkyard.

Yesterday, I knew that it would hurt a lot to lie on my back for a half hour with my shoulder in something resembling a vice, so I took two Norcos (the narcotic equivalent of three Vicodin). When the technician first positioned me, I couldn’t even begin the handle the pain, so he spent several minutes cushioning my shoulder. Peggy had helped me change clothes for the procedure, and the tech gave her a magazine and told her she could sit in the MRI room with me.

I knew that if I moved, I would have to stay in the machine even longer, and that if I moved too much, I would have to come back again, yet I despaired of holding out. I tried to count each four-minute series so I would have an idea how many more I had to endure, but I lost count. Then, I tried to relive memories of happy events in my life because I had heard that some prisoners of war survive torture that way, but I couldn’t come up with many memories or hold onto the few I did. I even tried counting the seconds, both as a way to distract myself from the pain and to know how much longer each series would last. One-one thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand and so on. But I had no idea how closely my counting coincided with the passage of time. I suspected that I was way slow.

The technician could talk to me over a microphone, and he started telling me that I needed to lie still. I thought I was lying still, but I tried even harder. My arm stopped obeying me any too well, and I was afraid I would lose control of it completely. Meanwhile, the roof of the tube hovered three inches above my face, and the metallic pounding of the machine blocked out the classical music in my headphones. I didn’t scream, cry, vomit, faint, or thrash about; so to Peggy, who was unable to see anything but my feet sticking out of the tube, I must have looked okay.

I thought of the months of torture that people were subjected to at Guantanamo Bay Prison, and I wondered what kind of lame-ass torturers needed months, rather than minutes, to break a man.

I remembered being told in church when I was a kid that hell was infinitely painful and lasted forever, but that the loved ones of people who were in hell were still able to experience unlimited happiness in heaven even though they knew what was going on down below.

I didn’t think I could bear it if the pain got worse, but I also knew that I could tell the technician to stop. This made me wonder about people who are in even worse pain, and for a much longer time, but can’t stop it. I’ve heard that they pass out, but what happens when they wake up and the pain is still there?

Years ago, I saw a documentary about Devil’s Island, the place where the French used to send criminals. In that documentary, a man was on his back, being manacled to a wooden bench for the night. He was in obvious pain, sobbing and pleading with the guard, for what I didn’t know; maybe to make the manacles looser. He was a little man, and he looked so pathetic that the image has stayed with me for years, although he was only on the screen for seconds. I think of him a lot when I’m hurting, because he had no drugs, and his guards had no mercy.

Another thing that went through my mind yesterday was that I couldn’t imagine anyone not killing themselves if such pain was all that lay ahead of them. I should think that even people who believe that God sends you to hell if you kill yourself would still kill themselves and take their chances. I should think they would even beg for a gun.

Later, I tried to tell Peggy how bad it had been, but words failed me, and I worried that she would think I was a wimp. Pain is a very private world. Sometimes, I feel like I’m no longer in this world (at least this world as I’ve known it), but have stepped into some other world.

For as long as I live, I will never forget the pain of my MRIs last year, and yesterday was even worse. I know it was worse because, last year, the technician complimented me on lying still. This year, the technician became annoyed. He didn’t say he was annoyed—he even acted like he was sympathetic—but I think he was annoyed.

Sometimes, I write about how bad things are for me, but what I don’t write about is how much I respect myself for how well I am handling it. Part of what keeps me going is that I have settled my mind on the idea that I am facing a year of pain and disability, but that, if I can hold out, I should be in good shape this time next year. If I’m not, I’ll deal with it then. For now, I need to believe that things will get better.

Some of the people who read my blog have cancers that will probably kill them. Another woman, Cali, has a disease that’s six words long, but which means that the nerves all over her body are screwed up, and that she is in permanent pain, and might get worse. Others are in pain from bad backs, rheumatoid arthritis, and so forth. These people hold me in their hearts with compassion. Maybe it’s true of people who suffer a lot that they are more loving toward those who are suffering less, than are people who haven’t known much suffering. Sometimes, such people tell me that I speak for them when I write about pain, not because I hurt as much, but because I describe it better. Still, I doubt that many of us feel understood by those who are closet to us. It’s like war in that you have to go there to have a clue.

I tend to think in terms of how bad things would have to be before I killed myself. I have already endured a lot, and this makes me think that I’m a lot stronger than I gave myself credit for. I have been depressed for much of my life, but for the most part now, I am not particularly depressed. I think this is because I regard my condition as so frightening that I don’t have the luxury of indulging myself in too much negativity. I get negative, of course, but I bounce back faster than I did when I was emotionally depressed but physically healthy.

I’m sure there are those who think what I might have once thought, that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, my main complaint is shoulder pain, and how bad could that be? Everyone has had sore shoulders, so when they try to imagine how I feel, they probably picture it as simply a bad case of sore shoulders. Peggy sometimes expresses the wish that she might feel my pain for a short time in order to know what it is like. I wish she could too, because even a few minutes of it would give her some idea.

Something else that comforts me is my knowledge that, throughout the millennia, most people who have suffered as I suffer had no hope for anything but more pain. And what of those who, despite the pain, had to work hard physically to survive? I have no idea how they could bear it, but knowing even a little of what their lives were like makes me better able to face my life, that and the fact that I have a doctor whom I like and trust.

Mark is big. Maybe in his upper thirties. A serious bodybuilder. Strong but gentle. He takes his time with me. He listens. I went through three other doctors to find him, and I would not be coping nearly so well without him—or his assistant, Laura, who is so prompt to call back when I need something.

What I would really like would be to compartmentalize my suffering so that I could still have a more or less normal life, but I’ve found this to be exceedingly difficult because I can’t do so most of the things I would normally do. It’s like my life is on hold, and getting beyond that is a struggle against which I’m not making much progress.

Rainbows everywhere

I just got caught up on answering responses from past entries, so if you wrote to me and didn't hear back, or didn't find a response when you checked back, you will probably find one now. A lot of you put a great deal of thought and love into writing to me, and it is very much in my heart to reciprocate.

Please know that I appreciate you. Especially now that things are so challenging for me physically, you are my guiding rainbow. I have always found purpose through the work that I could do with my body, and now I can't even dust furniture. You have no idea--well, a lot of you probably do--how hard that is, or how much your support means to me.

I judge my life - Part 2 - Go down Moses

My 17-day career in the Air Force being over (see April 20), Peggy and I returned to Mississippi where I got a job as a fifth grade teacher in Brookhaven, my hometown. The year was 1973, and Fannie Mullins had been a segregated black school until a few years earlier, so it was in Little Egypt a part of town that few white people had previously visited. The neighborhood was poor, and the streets were narrow and lacked curbs or sidewalks.

The principal (Dow) and three of the other teachers (Tillman, Brown, and Goodwin) were black men, making me the only white male. They greeted me coolly, but without hostility. Goodwin even invited me to go fishing one afternoon. I didn’t fish, but then I didn’t figure that the invitation was really about fishing anyway. I figured it was really about seeing whether I was openly bigoted. When I passed the test, no other invitations were offered. The truth was that the other men at Fannie Mullins didn’t want to socialize with me anymore than I wanted to socialize with them. We simply didn’t have much in common.

People from outside the South tend to see everything that happens there in terms of race, but things aren’t that simple because, in the modern South, cultural differences are probably more important than racial ones. Let me give you an example that might sound familiar. Compare an ordinary black church to an ordinary white church of the same denomination. The dress, the music, and the preaching style are quite different, but are these racial differences, cultural differences or a combination? How would you even know?

I’ve been to scores of teachers’ meetings during which the white teachers sat together on one side of the auditorium, and the black teachers on the other. Sometimes, a teacher might cross over, and I was never aware that anyone had a problem with it; but the fact is that the white teachers weren’t excluding the black teachers (or vice versa), but that everyone was exercising his freedom to sit where he pleased. Maybe this is hard for white people from other places to accept because they know very few black people, and the black people they do know fit into the dominant white culture. But Mississippi is roughly half black (more in places), and this enables two distinct cultures to exist side by side.

The other men at Fannie Mullins wore ties and sometimes sports coats if not full suits; I didn’t. One day, Mr. Dow ordered me to at least wear a tie, so I starting wearing a clip-on to work, only to take it off as soon as I got to my room, and not put it on again until I took my class to lunch. He gave me grief about this from time to time, but I hated ties; I didn’t see the sense in them; and I sure as hell wasn’t go to wear one in a Mississippi school that didn’t have air conditioning.

The third year I taught, a new roof was put on the flat school building, and the tar for the project was melted right outside my window over a period of weeks. This created such a smoky stench that I had to keep the windows shut, and between the smoke and the 100 degree plus temperatures, conditions were almost unbearable. No one learned in my classroom; they simply survived. When I complained, Mr. Dow said that he had ordered the cooker to be placed outside my room because I was a man, implying, I suppose, that this made me better qualified to suffer. I didn’t think it prudent to mention that there were other men he could have chosen, but we got into a bit of a row anyway. One thing led to another, and he ended up giving me hell about the tie issue. “Why can’t you just follow my orders like the other men?” he asked. I said it was because I wasn’t afraid of him like the other men (Dow was big and gruff). The other men had hardly confided in me, so I couldn’t be sure that this was true, but I was pleased to see that it very nearly made him apoplectic.

I finished my third year as a teacher in 1976. I had wanted to grow a beard for months, but put it off until summer. I was actually na├»ve enough to think my beard wouldn’t be a problem when school started back in late August. My reasoning was that three of the four remaining men (Goodwin had died) had moustaches, and so I wasn’t introducing facial hair, I was simply extending its range. I went to the school a few days before classes started to get my room set-up, and in less than five minutes Mr. Dow was on the intercom ordering me to his office. I knew from experience that this boded no good.

“Snow,” he said (of course he really used my other name), “I see that you grew a beard over the summer, and I want you to know that it looks mighty fine, but I’m assuming you’ll be shaving it off before school starts.”

“No, sir, I hadn’t planned to.”

“Well, I just don’t know if Mr. Trammel [the area superintendent] will let you teach looking like that.”

“Well, sir, I don’t intend to shave.”

I went back to my room and waited to see what would happen next. A few minutes later, he summoned me back to his office, and said that Mr. Brumfield wanted me to call his secretary and make an appointment to see him. Mr. Brumfield was the assistant superintendent. Both he and Mr. Trammel had been working their way up the career ladder when I was a kid, and this meant that they both had occasion to spank me from time to time for fighting.

Mr. Brumfield had no better luck getting me to shave than had Mr. Dow, so he passed me along to Mr. Trammel who found me equally recalcitrant. As my superiors saw it, their main weapon was to threaten my advancement into an administrative position. Little did they know—and scarcely could they believe—that I didn’t want to advance. They then threatened to take away my students and leave me in an empty classroom all year. The image of being paid to sit around and read sounded as appealing as it did unlikely, so I offered no protest about that either. Finally, they said that I was a disappointment to them, an embarrassment to the Brookhaven Municipal Separate School District, and intimated that I might be fired. This option was also appealing because I had by now talked to someone from the ACLU, and was pretty sure I would win if we went to court.

Why did they object to your beard?

Most white Southerners in 1976 associated beards with dope-smoking hippies (which wasn’t far off the mark in my case). I assumed that black people felt the same way, so I was surprised to learn that they associated beards, not with peaceful hippies, but with violent militants. Even so, no one in the administration ever admitted that he personally had an issue with my beard; they were simply concerned about what the community at large would think.

School started without anything more being done. I waited. Weeks passed. I finally realized that nothing was going to be done. My superiors would probably hate me and maybe even look for an excuse to get rid of me, but they had no doubt seen their lawyer and decided that it wouldn’t be cost effective to go to war over a beard.

Meanwhile, I struggled within myself over whether to shave in order to placate them. The consensus among people who I talked to was that the job was more important than the beard. Yet, I knew that if I shaved, I would become so resentful that I would probably quit the job anyway. I turned to nature, marijuana and Thoreau—all at the same time. Everyday after work, I would retreat to the woods with a joint and my compendium of Thoreau.

I saw a lot of Mr. Dow that year because he was forever on the intercom, summoning me to his office to give me hell about one thing or another. He even said that parents complained more about me than they did about all his other teachers combined. I doubted this because I had never been told of a single complaint in previous years and only one specific complaint after I grew my beard (someone objected to the relaxation exercises that I gave the kids on the grounds that they were un-Christian). Indeed, I had always been popular with students and parents so far as I was aware.

The year passed and contract renewal time came around again. I didn’t sign on for another year for various reasons. The hostility of my superiors was one of them, but just as important was a reason that makes no sense to most people. Contracts make me claustrophobic. Even though I had every intention of seeing the job through, the knowledge that I had to sign a paper promising to be in a certain place at a certain time on a certain day months and months in advance gave me the willies. Now that things were especially tense at work, the prospect of signing a contract weighed on me even more heavily.

Were you a good teacher?

Not especially. I liked the kids, and the kids liked me because I was creative in my teaching and my assignments, and because I made them laugh. The problem was that I didn’t take my responsibility seriously. I taught 150 kids a day, 30 at a time for 50 minutes at a time, and although I wanted to help the underachievers realize their potential—no one had helped me, and I failed three grades—I felt powerless to make a difference. And, as with every other job I ever had, I hated taking orders; I felt underpaid; and I thought I deserved a job better suited to my genius. Unfortunately, I never figured out exactly what job was better suited to my genius or even where my genius lay. I just knew that I had a sense of destiny, a feeling that I was meant for greatness, but I lacked any sense that I had to work for it. I believed that if I waited long enough, the universe would drop success into my lap.

Another major problem that I had was shyness. I simply couldn’t pull off speaking to groups of adults, and I was even afraid to speak to my students’ parents at open house nights or during conferences. I cannot overstate the severity of this problem. I can but report that I overcame it around my fiftieth year. If I had been able to overcome it decades sooner, it would have opened doors that were completely closed to me. For example, I might have gotten an advanced degree and become a professor.

If you were so shy, how were you able to stand up to people who opposed you?

I was also principled and stubborn. If I thought someone—or some group—was trying to run over me, I could find the strength to resist simply because I feared being unable to live with myself if I knuckled under. I remember but one occasion when I let someone intimidate me, and I tortured myself over it for many years.

I saw this same resistance in my father who was even shyer than I. His voice would break simply from trying to order food in a restaurant, but if he was mad enough, he could fill a football stadium with profanity. His problem was that his anger was consistently misplaced and misused. I have made a valiant effort to correct that in my own life, and as a result, I seldom lose my temper.

I was too immature to be a good teacher. Yet, if I were teaching today and the beard issue came up, I would struggle with it now just as I struggled with it then. Would I give in to the silly rules of silly men who valued conformity and public relations over freedom and education, or would I deprive my students of a good teacher—and I think I have it in me to be a good teacher? My choice is not immediately obvious. Here is what Thoreau wrote about his experience. At the time I taught, it mirrored my own.

“I have thoroughly tried schoolkeeping and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.”