Dream friends

Twice lately, in my dreams, I created friends who I knew would disappear when I awakened. Each time, I held them tightly and said, “You are real here, but when I wake up, it will be to a world in which you have no reality. There will be no house in which I can visit you; there will be no grave to mark a life that used to be; and there will be no one else on the whole earth who has any memory of you.” The thought that they were imaginary wrecked me because where can a better friend be found than in one’s dreams? For their part, they accepted their fate, telling me that they could not leave me because they came from me, and were me.

I knew this was true, but I wanted more. I wanted to see and touch and hold them, and the wrinkled face that met me in the bathroom mirror did not remind me either of myself or of them. The dream was the reality, and the face was the alien. Or so I wished it to be. In reality, I knew that the face was a constant (or at least as constant as anything in my life), and that the dream creatures were so ephemeral that I could not even count upon seeing the same one twice.

My last dream friend was a blind man. The previous day, I had consoled myself about my knee problem with the thought that things could be worse—I could be blind. That night, in my dream, a blind man took me by the hand and led me through many dangers. He could do this because he saw by wisdom while I only had physical eyes.

Oh, but I look so old when I get up! The face that first greets me looks ten years older than my normal face, which means that it will my normal face ten years from now. The years roll on despite my protest and disbelief. Only yesterday, I was a boy. Now that boy is like a recently remembered dream person who I can almost reach out and touch, but not quite because we are separated by realms rather than miles. It’s as though he exists in an overlapping universe that I can only see from the corner of my eye. When I was that boy, old people said life would be this way, but no boy would have believed them. If an old man appears wise, it might be because that is the only respectable role left to him; so it is to wisdom I aspire.

Oscar Schlegel

Oscar Schlegel, one of my Masonic brothers, asked me to take him to the barbershop yesterday. I often offer to do things for people but am seldom taken up on them. I had been craving beer for days, so I bought a case of Pabst on the way. I chose Pabst because the can looks like it did when I was a boy—and because it was on sale. Otherwise, I would have gotten Busch because I like the mountains on the label, and because that’s the brand that I drank when I was first married and considered it grown-up to come home and pop a cold one. I soon gave it up because I never much liked beer. My favorites are the ones that are as black as coffee, but they cost too much. Peggy says I should indulge myself, but I don’t enjoy indulging with things that are gone in a few minutes. If I were to indulge, it would be with hard liquor.

I am almost done repaving the patio; a hot weekend is expected; and I look forward to sitting outdoors with a beer or two. It will make up to an extent for our decision to stay home this weekend. Peggy suggested that I continue hiking until the knee wears out, and then get an artificial one. I agreed until I found out how flimsy artificial knees are. Then too, I can’t enjoy hiking when I am in pain and laboring under the realization that every step takes me that much closer to surgery.

I hope to at least make my knee last until winter because I have a lot of outside work to do this summer. If I can make it last a few more years, that will be even better. Despite my doctor’s pessimism, I hold to the hope that artificial cartilage will be perfected sooner rather than later.

After his haircut, I brought Oscar home for lunch, and then he took Peggy and me to see the assisted care facility where he lives. He said he will die soon without heart surgery, but his doctor won’t operate because of his age (92). Every time I see him, his lungs are a little more congested and his breathing a little more labored. Otherwise, he is in good shape. I assume a significant lessening of the faculties in old people, so it’s disconcerting to speak loudly and in simple sentences to someone who looks back at me like I’m an idiot. I told him yesterday (as if he needed to know) that aging challenges a person’s creativity because he has to find new activities to replace the ones he used to enjoy but can no longer do. Oscar agreed. I hope he will call on me more.

I might have preferred cancer

I just got the results from my MRI. There were some areas where bone is scraping bone and other areas where bone is almost scraping bone. That was the bad news. There was no good news. The doctor suggested that I walk as little as necessary and that I not hike at all.

I said I had heard of people who climb mountains and run marathons on artificial joints, and I asked if any of those joints were knees. She said artificial knees are good for easy walks on flat ground, but that people who use them for more than that wear them out fast. Since there is less bone on which to attach each successive knee, a man my age would soon run out of options. She said I can do far more now than I could dream of doing on an artificial knee. I told her that the knee feels so fragile that I worry about it collapsing sideways. She said this is indeed possible and that it would most likely be the end of the knee.

I spent the afternoon enlarging our paving stone patio, and the work kept my mind off my knee until I stopped, and the gloom descended. Hiking is more than a hobby to Peggy and me; it is a way of life. I thought about my beloved trekking poles that I have used for fifteen years and for which I just bought a new tip. I thought about the mountaintops I have stood upon that I will never stand upon again. And I wondered what we will do the next time we have a few days off.

Then there is our vacation in August, the first long trip we have made in years. We had planned to hike in eastern Oregon, Nevada, and Idaho. Now what? Admire the scenery through the windshield? Visit a museum? Me read while Peggy and the dogs hike?

Later, I looked briefly at mountain bikes on the Internet, but carpal tunnel causes my hands to tingle during short trips on my town bike. Maybe I should have surgery for that.

I would have preferred a diagnosis of cancer if my odds of recovery were good because the terrain is all downhill from here as far as my mobility is concerned. The most cheerful thought I can come up with is that people have survived worse and become better for it.

Back home

Back home. I couldn’t sleep last night for sharp pains radiating down the outside of my leg. If avoiding hikes would enable my knee to heal so I could hike later, the tradeoff would be worth it, but my surgery was four months ago; I have cared for myself exquisitely; and I have given up hope that I will ever be as fit as I was the day I walked into the hospital. Meanwhile, spring has come to the mountains, and the lengthening days will become shortening days in two weeks.

Making things easier for my knee might save me for other things. The problem is that I value none of those things nearly so much as I value what we did this weekend. Peggy and I talk from time to time about how we might get around my limitation. For example, I could bike alongside as she hiked remote roads, or I could even ride a trike so as to better match her speed. The trouble with such things is that they represent a willingness to settle for less than I want, and I’m not willing to settle anymore than I already have.

A few days in the Cascades 3

We climbed Grasshopper Mtn (5,642 feet) today, or at least Peggy did. Within 150 vertical feet of the top, the going became so rough that I decided it would be idiocy for me to continue. The rest of the trail had been bad enough. It had traversed steep meadows where the ground was uneven from moles and frost heave. Oh, but the beauty! The air was clear; the view expansive; the sky musical with birdsongs; and the earth vibrant with flowers, butterflies, iridescent beetles, and streams that ran in and out of the ground. As usual, we hadn’t seen another person in days.

I can but assume that most people are able to survive without such beauty because it is unknown to them. True, one can see Mount Hood and Yosemite Falls from parking lots, but the experience is in some ways inferior to seeing them on IMAX. At least, IMAX does not pretend to offer an intimate experience of nature, and this leaves the viewer to marvel as much at the cleverness of his species as at a glimpse of another place.

While Peggy summited, I enjoyed the peace of the sun-dappled shade. The thick forest debris was dotted with windflower and vanilla leaf, beings far more beautiful than I. Our great brains and our physical frailty have so separated us from nature that we are all like people who see Yosemite Falls from crowded asphalt. We are a part of two worlds, one of pure being and one of our own manufacture.

A few days in the Cascades 2

We camped where the sun would hit the van early. My coffee brewed, we drove to the Sardine Butte (5,214 feet) trailhead. The road was not only uncleared but outright abandoned. The trail itself being short, we didn’t object. Sour cherry overhung the roadbed, and the air was charged with the scent of their flowers. Wednesday’s cortisone shot helped my knee, but I still found myself carrying on a running dialogue. “How ya doing knee?” “Not great, but maybe I can hold out if it’s not too much farther. Just spare me any lateral pressure lest I collapse.” Other times, it would say, “I’ve had enough. We will both pay dearly if we continue.” I would respond, “Be patient—I’ll walk carefully.”

After our descent, we read at the edge of a quarry. The sun was too warm, and the shade too cold so, like the Indians who once followed the seasons up and down these mountains, we migrated back and forth. Oregon boxwood was in bloom, its small purplish brown flowers remarkably beautiful to those who take the time to notice small things.

Later, we drove to the Grasshopper Mtn trailhead, and camped in a quarry with a view. We hiked the road for an hour and a half, but saved the summit for tomorrow. My knee was hurting, and I reflected that this year marks the first time that I am limited by what I can do rather than by what I want to do. I am not a person who will bear disability well. In fact, I don’t aspire to bear disability well. When I become too old or infirm to function halfway normally, I always thought I would have someone drive me to a remote wilderness where I could take my pills, drink my whisky, and fire my gun. Last night, I read that older people’s organs can be successfully implanted, and I reluctantly decided that I should do myself in at the door of a hospital.

I was thinking about this intensely while feeling hopeless about my knee, and it moved ever so slightly in the direction of taking over my thoughts. I remembered Hemingway trying to throw himself into an airplane propeller before blowing his head off with a shotgun. I want suicide to be a means to maintain dignity rather than the frantic act of a desperate man.

A few days in the Cascades 1

Peggy and I were the first people to drive to the Indian Ridge (5,405 feet) trailhead this year, as evidenced by the rocks we had to move and the limbs we had to saw to clear the road. Some snow remained, and mosquitoes flew about drunkenly in the chill air.

The four-hour hike over steep, uneven ground was not the best exercise for a man with a bad knee. For much of the distance, clumps of bear grass threatened to snag our feet, and mountain beaver holes to swallow our ankles. We camped at the trailhead with five prominent Cascade peaks in view. It being too cold to enjoy a fire, we went to bed early and read—Peggy, Murder on the Orient Express, and me a botanical field guide.

Indian Ridge

Peggy and I were the first people to drive to the Indian Ridge (5,405 feet) trailhead this year, as evidenced by the rocks we had to move and the limbs we had to saw to clear the road. Some snow remained, and mosquitoes flew about drunkenly in the chill air.

The four-hour hike over steep, uneven ground was not the best exercise for a man with a bad knee. For much of the distance, clumps of bear grass threatened to snag our feet, and mountain beaver holes to swallow our ankles. We camped at the trailhead with five prominent Cascade peaks in view. It being too cold to enjoy a fire, we went to bed early and read—Peggy, Murder on the Orient Express, and me a botanical field guide.

Old rocks and paradoxes

The oldest earth rocks are 4.2 billion years old; the piece of Oregon andesite on my desk is 40 million. How old is that in human terms?

We count a human artifact as an antique at 100 and as almost unbelievably old at 10,000, which is the age of some sandals that were found in an Oregon cave. So, how long is 10,000 years compared to 40 million? It is 1/4000th.

The human species only originated 150,000 years ago, which means that my rock was already 39,850,000 years old when homo sapiens first walked the earth, and 39,999,943 years old I was born—it is 701,754 times older than I, yet it is devoid of wrinkles and liver spots.

I wonder from time to time what would happen if I stored a rock in conditions that eliminated all external causes of alteration. How many years would pass before it looked any different than it does today? Surely, it would eventually assume a different form, but what number would represent the amount of years that this would take?

I have another puzzler. Numbers are said to be infinite, yet between each whole number and its successor, there is only one other whole number—as in 2+1=3. But how many fractions are between the numbers 2 and 3? An infinite number, right? But this would mean that the infinitude of fractions is larger than the infinitude of whole numbers!

Zeno posed a similar paradox. To wit: To cross a room, a person must first cross the one-half point. But to cross the one-half point, he (or she) must first cross the one-quarter point. Ah, but before the one-quarter point comes the one-eighth point. Because the number of points can be halved infinitely it is obviously impossible to cross a room.