Phil is dying, optimist versus pessimist

My friend, Phil Conners, has cancer. His bones are breaking; his body is no longer producing blood; he is struggling to breathe; and he has run out of treatment possibilities. He is handling all of this surprisingly well. When your every other option has been taken away, you can still inspire people by the way you die.

Since I met Phil in 1992, his house burned to the ground, he lost an eye, his son drowned while trying to rescue a stranger, his wife had cancer, and he himself has fought cancer for years; yet I have never seen anything get him down. When I ask him how he is, he says, “Well, I’m breathing, and I can still walk for short distances, so I guess I’m doing pretty good.” I would need a lot more than that to pronounce life good, but I see no reason to rain on Phil’s parade.

I would like to think that Phil’s bravery is a choice, but I suspect that there are those among us who are congenitally upbeat. It’s as if they have a net beneath them that softens their every fall, no matter how far the drop. That stated, I can’t say that I too wouldn’t face death well. I haven’t faced an arthritic knee well (it being the worst thing that has ever happened to me), but I see no reason to conclude that despondency over a relatively small thing would necessarily indicate despondency over any and all great things. Just as an ordinary toothache might hurt worse than a fatal stroke, so might people’s emotional reactions vary.

At least if I were dying, I would know that the indignity of using the toilet was near an end. At least, there would be that advantage, whereas I can’t think of any advantage to an arthritic knee. The damn thing hurts so bad right now that I can hardly sit still. It keeps me awake at night; it threatens to collapse during the day; it has robbed me of the ability to engage in the activities I enjoyed most; and there is no good solution. There might be something that I could learn from it, but I don’t know what.

Peggy went skiing last week with a couple of fellows named Rick and Doug, who got into an argument on the drive to the mountains. Rick said that he is, and always has been, prone to depression, but that he has learned that there is a benefit to his depression; namely, that he has more philosophical and emotional depth than people who are inveterate optimists. Doug being an inveterate optimist, an argument ensued that got so nasty that the other people in the car ducked down and stayed quiet.

Most traits probably do have their upsides and their downsides, and these aren’t always obvious or even discoverable. Of course, I pretty much have to think this way, because if I were to judge my worth as a human being by the way I am handling this knee issue, I would come out looking bad; just as Phil Conners would come out looking bad if he were judged by how clean he keeps his house.

Okay, so maybe dying well is more important than keeping your furniture dusted, but then again, maybe it isn’t. Maybe all that God really cares about is cleanliness (it being next to Godliness), which would mean that Phil is doomed to burn in hell and me to have a front-row seat in heaven (where I would probably be put to work polishing something). Which one of us would be more content with our fate is another issue.

The tux search continues

I went to my Masonic lodge last night prepared for my first night in the junior deacon’s chair. As we were donning our aprons, the master told me that lodge would be conducted in the Entered Apprentice degree instead of the Master Masons’ degree, the latter being the usual degree and the part I had memorized. I protested his failure to tell me sooner, but there was nothing for it but to say the lines that the degrees have in common and wing the rest (either that or run from the building). I served as best I could, and felt that I conducted myself well.

I find beauty and comfort in the precision and predictability of a well-conducted Masonic lodge. It is like a formal garden in which every walkway is swept and every flower is in bloom, the difference being that Masonry changes but little and slowly. If I could travel back in time and emerge in the earliest Eugene lodge at the time of its inception in 1850, the primary differences would be the antique clothing and the absence of electricity. If I were to go back even earlier and attend lodge with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, I would still recognize the essentials and most of the superfluities.

After lodge, the senior deacon renewed his determination to find me a tuxedo. To this end, he engaged the help of another. They looked me up and down while debating what size I needed. I suggested a 42, but they agreed between themselves on a 40, and I saw no point in arguing over something that I was only 99.9% sure of. While they searched, I stood behind them, hoping fervently that nothing would be found. And nothing was found, at least nothing that was not moth-eaten, white, powder blue, or velvet. Just when I thought the danger was past, they decided to seek the assistance of the Scottish Rite. 750 of its 1,000 members have died over the last few decades, so this leaves a potential warehouse of tuxedos.

It might seem ironic that I am as determined to know my part well as I am to avoid wearing a tux while performing it. My reason is that the former reflects upon my resolve and my intelligence, while the latter is a matter of taste. I accepted the post only after being assured by the master that I would not have to dress for it. Last night, I wore a sports coat without a tie. No one complained, although I take this determination to find me a tuxedo to be a tacit complaint.

Two Years Before the Mast, thoughts on hardship

I am reading Two Years Before the Mast, an account of life aboard a U.S. merchantman in the 1830s. The author was nineteen when he left Harvard and shipped out, and the book was published when he was twenty-five. If I were to cite only the most memorable passages from the fifty pages I have read, I would need ten pages. I could not have approached such poetic insight or descriptive powers when I was so young, and I seriously question whether I could do so now. I might, after all, mistake my talent for writing just as I mistake my talent for singing, for my every note is as soothing from within as it is grating from without. Some people have even doubted that I am capable of forming a note—or at least more than one of them.

On Monday, November 19, 1834, a young Englishman on Dana’s ship fell from the rigging into the sea. He was so weighed down by ropes and tools that he never surfaced.

“Death is at all times solemn, but never so much as at sea. A man dies on shore; his body remains with his friends, and ‘the mourners go about in the streets;’ but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness to the event, and a difficulty in realizing it, which gives to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies on shore—you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something that helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed…but at sea the man is near you—at your side—you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then too, at sea, to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and, for months and months, see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is suddenly taken from among them, and they miss him at every turn…. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit has made them seem almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.

“All these things make a death peculiarly solemn, and the effect of it remains upon the crew for some time…. There is more quietness and seriousness. The oath and the loud laugh are gone. The officers are more watchful, and the crew goes more carefully aloft. The lost man is seldom mentioned…”

How much more beautifully poignant is this description of grief because of the last sentence. I suppose it is true at all times and in all places that there is much that men do not share with other men.

“Whatever your feelings may be, you must make a joke of everything at sea; and if you were to fall from aloft and be caught in the belly of a sail, and thus saved from instant death, it would not do to look at all disturbed…”

Yet, I cannot say that there is no good in this prohibition. I have read many accounts of men who were trapped on mountains or in Polar Regions, and I have learned from them that the Stoicism, if not the outright cheerfulness, of some made the survival of others possible. Indeed, Earnest Shackleton’s men were so elevated by his bravery that they reported having been ashamed to voice their own discontent during the long months of cold, hunger, and mortal danger. Yet, how often have men like Shackleton survived unimaginable hardships with a cheerful countenance only to become despondent when those hardships were past. The ability to flourish in times of peril does not insure the ability to so much as exist on ordinary days.

When I consider my own state, I cannot see that I have a genius for either times that are good or times that are bad. While it is true that I have never been tested by the worst that man or nature offers, it is also true that I have never sought to be tested. The men who I read about went looking for the worst time after time. I’ve read of men whose fingers and toes were lost to frostbite, yet still climbed mountains. I do not know what to make of them, and so I continue to read. Especially when the long months of winter are upon me, and I can barely muster the will to get out of bed each day, I seek the literary companionship of those who were determined to keep going no matter what.

Books entitled Angels in the Wilderness, In the Land of White Death, and Ice, helped me survive December. Now that the daffodils are tall, the willows are swollen with buds, and each day is longer than its predecessor; I know I will last until better times. I am tempted to say that a forlorn day in summer is more agreeable than a happy day in winter, but this would make no sense, so I will not say it.

In her regard for the seasons, as in many things, Peggy is my opposite. The only good she can say about sunshine is that it makes the snow to sparkle most agreeably.

Questions of respect, of morality

I watched Saddam’s hanging, both the authorized photos and the secret taping. Peggy speculated that he died bravely because he lacked normal human feelings. Perhaps. Perhaps the presence of cameras helped too.

Would George Bush have died as well? Would I? Hang me outdoors on a warm sunny afternoon, and maybe. But in winter, before dawn, in a room that was cold and gray, surrounded by people who tormented me.... Peggy said she wouldn’t want to see the tape because she wouldn’t want it to get stuck in her head. I am glad to have it stuck in my head because it was a powerful—and even an inspirational—moment.

There was nothing in his life that so became him as the leaving of it. -Shakespeare

His last words were, “You go to hell.” They weren’t good last words, but defiance surely beats cowardice. Peggy thinks that terror would have been a more appropriate response. Maybe it’s a gender thing, but, despite the understandability of fear, who wouldn’t prefer solace, and what better solace than courage? Even if Peggy didn’t think less of me because I died trembling, she think better of me if I died with dignity.

If Peggy is right about Saddam’s lack of normal human feeling making his death easier, what does this say about the desirability of normal human feelings? And what does it say about good men like Nathan Hale who died bravely, or other bad men—like Ted Bundy—who died as cowards? I could not look at Saddam Hussein standing tall and proud in the midst of his masked haranguers and not feel respect. It is a grudging respect to be sure, but even the devil deserves his due.

Another difference of opinion arose between Peggy and me this morning. We were talking about our little dog, Wendy, when Peggy said she would give $100,000 to bring Wendy back to life. I never thought that Peggy loved Wendy more than I, but I would not give $100,000 to bring Wendy or anyone else back. So what then, would I give $10,000? Yes, but I hate to be forced to admit that I only value the life of a beloved dog—or a beloved friend—to the tune of a certain number of dollars. Besides, the issue is more complex than that.

For example, I might not pay a large sum to bring Wendy back, but neither would I have accepted any amount of money to end her life prematurely—except for humanitarian reasons—even if she hadn’t been my dog. There seems to be a paradox here. While I make little effort to rescue ailing and destitute dogs, I would not choose to profit from their deaths. But how might I defend this position? After all, I could use the money to help many other dogs. This leads me to wonder whether I care more about dogs or more about my self-image. It is the kind of dilemma that would never torment Peggy, because the right way would be obvious to her, and she would follow it regardless.

Of course, the proper use of such money as we already have is not an issue that concerns just me. Almost every dollar that either of us spends is a dollar that could have been used for what we would acknowledge to be a higher end. Instead of a new computer, we could have fed hungry children. What does this about our values?

I shudder to think, so I won’t think. I will go to the bank and deposit a $506 check that just arrived from the woman who bought my father’s house.... I like having money because money makes me feel safer than most of the other things that make me feel safe, and the truth is that I value my safety—and even my comfort--more than I value the lives of destitute children. Their numbers are unending, but there is just one me.

....The rain started back as I was leaving for the bank, so I didn’t go.

Peggy and I don’t talk about deep things much because they make her eyes glaze over. I consider it another paradox that she is more ethical than I, but that her values don’t arise from reflection. This used to frustrate me no end until I went through a string of lovers who could talk about deep things all day long, and still go out and act badly. This made me appreciate Peggy more. Now that Gerald Ford just died, I think of her as a little like him. She might not be razor sharp in some ways (although she is smarter than I in others), but if you’re looking for someone of unquestioned integrity, she’s your woman. When Ford replaced Nixon, someone asked him if he had considered creating a list of ethical guidelines so his staff wouldn’t get themselves into a Watergate-like fiasco. He replied that his own behavior would serve as their guideline. Like Ford, Peggy would consider it redundant to enumerate such standards.

An observer might suggest that, in many cases, my own depth appears to be a prelude to rationalization, but I would argue that, even though this is sometimes true, only one who cared about ethics would bother to rationalize. I would also argue against the possible implication that people who don’t think much about what their behavior means are more likely to behave well. Right and wrong are not always so obvious. If they were, life would be easier. Even in my own head, I often find myself in dilemmas in which my ambivalence is such that I feel screwed no matter which way I go. Some problems don’t admit of outcomes that are fair to everyone.