Peaceniks in the snow

I went to the federal building for a peace demonstration today. As I biked, a stiff wind blew wet snow into my face, stinging me with surprising sharpness. No one was there when I arrived, so I speculated that maybe I was the demonstration, and this posed a problem because I had no sign. Then I saw a woman slowly approaching with a five-foot high poster that read “Vigil and Fast for National Repentance and World Healing.” Her name was Peg, and she said she hadn’t eaten in a week, and that her back was killing her. Her every word and movement was in slow motion, and, although she showed a friendly interest in me, she had trouble tracking what I said. Others began to arrive singly until we numbered five women and myself. Hearing my accent, someone asked what part of the South I was from, and said she had lived ten miles from there. Finally, another man appeared. I was the youngster of the group.

Unlike on Saturday, I was very much in the mood for a protest, so I stood right next to the curb holding a borrowed sign. I alternated between waving and smiling at the four lanes of traffic from the west, and—when they had to stop for the light—waving and smiling at the three lanes of traffic from the north. Hundreds honked and waved back, including a cop and a bus driver. I chatted amiably with my companions, all of whom seemed pleased-as-punch to be out demonstrating on one of the foulest days of the year. I commented that we were surely a scraggly looking group in our comfortable but unstylish raingear. Someone replied that, as peaceniks go, we were more scruffy than scraggly. I could but defer to the voice of experience. After an hour, we formed a circle, held hands, and chanted: “May all beings be safe. May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free,” before going our separate ways. Peg said she comes everyday, so maybe I will see her tomorrow.

This was my third demonstration in a month. I also wrote to Republican Senator Gordon Smith to thank him for his bravery in opposing the war, and I had a letter about bicyclists published by the Register Guard. Even if nothing I do makes the least bit of difference, I feel better for having done it. The hardest thing is to say nothing. The next hardest thing is to speak out alone. The easiest thing is to speak out as a member of a group.

I felt increasingly sick during the demonstration. My chest is congested, and the exhaust fumes were torturous. The cold and wet didn’t do me any good either. By the time I got home, I was close to vomiting. Two hours and a hot shower later, I am still close to vomiting.

I asked Peggy to go with me to the demonstration, but she said she worried that some Marine with PTSD might come by and blow us all away. When I told one of the demonstrators this, she said she had been spat upon and hit, but never shot. She speculated that the spitter must have been a smoker, because the sputum was green and thick.

Anti-tax, anti-war

Local voters rejected a county income tax in November only to have county commissioners authorize it this week. Today, I attended a protest in front of city hall. Hundreds of motorists honked in support, but none offered to stand in the rain with us. One yelled (humorously, I supposed), “Get a job!” to which someone of our group yelled back, “That’s the problem—we have jobs.”

I hate standing on a street corner holding a sign. At first, I assumed a deadpan expression simply because I didn’t know what else to do. After awhile, I thought I might be more useful if I smiled and waved. I could do the latter easily enough, but I was in no mood for the former.

Eugene being Eugene, there was another protest across the street (the city hall, the courthouse, and the federal building are on adjacent blocks), this one against the war. I noticed three men with a Marine Corps banner approaching the peace activists, and I wondered if they were for or against the war. I suspected they were for it, because they looked really pissed-off. Sure enough, they placed themselves between the peaceniks and the street, willfully obscuring the signs of the former. One of the Marines screamed that anyone who opposes the War in Iraq shows contempt for every Marine who ever died in any battle of any war (he then listed a dozen or more battles). I was appalled by his logic, and even more appalled when the leader of my group yelled back, “We are with you and the United States Marine Corps, and not with those guys behind you there.”

“Wait just a minute here!” I said to myself, but I held my peace because I didn’t want to take energy away from the protest I had come to support. When the Marines crossed to our side of the street, I worried that the pro-war people and the anti-tax people would look like one big happy family, but I couldn’t think of anything to do about it. When I could stand the situation no longer, I yelled to the people on the other corner, “I hate the damn war. We never should have never gone there in the first place, but now that we’re there, we should come home yesterday.” The people on my side ignored me, and the heavy rain and traffic noise kept the people on the other side from hearing me, so I crossed over. They welcomed me warmly, but I didn’t stay long because I didn’t want my anti-tax placard to dilute their protest.

In less than an hour, all three protests disbanded, because the rain was drenching us and destroying our signs. On one side of the street, I had volunteered to gather signatures for an anti-tax ballot measure, and on the other, I volunteered to attend the next war protest. As with the recent neighborhood war protest, I don’t expect the ones at the Federal Building to shorten the war, but I like the idea of supporting those who support issues that I believe in.

Boots returns home

As I sat in Peggy’s recliner last night in the wee hours (which were my worst hours when my father was dying), I remembered a runaway cat named Boots from thirty years ago. My Georgia cousin, Carrie, had given Boots to me because she was allergic to his fur. I drove him 450 miles back to Mississippi, and he soon disappeared. I said nothing about this to Carrie, but she called nine months later to tell me that Boots had come home. He scratched on the door, she said, and went straight through the house to where his bowl used to stay.

Bonnie and Baxter have a strange way of appearing unheralded when something of interest is about to happen. Like if I take cheese from the refrigerator. Even if I try to be sneaky about it, they are capable of awakening from a deep sleep at the other end of the house and making their way to the kitchen before I can get the package open.

My species has habitually demonstrated the capacity for one generation to declare whole groups of people as hopelessly, obviously, and unarguably inferior, only to have their own children declare them a hopeless, obvious, and unarguable embarrassment. I suspect that our feelings of superiority over other animals is similar, only they present our bigotry with a greater challenge because they compare to us so poorly in some ways even while possessing gifts that we can scarcely imagine in others. What pet lover has not looked at his dog or cat and wished mightily that he could see through their eyes? Whole worlds at our fingertips, yet they might as well be on the far side of the galaxy.

Boots returns home

As I sat in Peggy’s recliner last night in the wee hours (which were my worst hours when my father was dying), I remembered a runaway cat named Boots from thirty years ago. My Georgia cousin, Carrie, had given Boots to me because she was allergic to his fur. I drove him 450 miles back to Mississippi, and he soon disappeared. I said nothing about this to Carrie, but she called nine months later to tell me that Boots had come home. He scratched on the door, she said, and went straight through the house to where his bowl used to stay.

Bonnie and Baxter have a strange way of appearing unheralded when something of interest is about to happen. Like if I take cheese from the refrigerator. Even if I try to be sneaky about it, they are capable of awakening from a deep sleep at the other end of the house and making their way to the kitchen before I can get the package open.

My species has habitually demonstrated the capacity for one generation to declare whole groups of people as hopelessly, obviously, and unarguably inferior, only to have their own children declare them a hopeless, obvious, and unarguable embarrassment. I suspect that our feelings of superiority over other animals is similar, only they present our bigotry with a greater challenge because they compare to us so poorly in some ways even while possessing gifts that we can scarcely imagine in others. What pet lover has not looked at his dog or cat and wished mightily that he could see through their eyes? Whole worlds at our fingertips, yet they might as well be on the far side of the galaxy.

Everyone knows that old people are senile.

I caught a cold three weeks ago, and was hit by a second one just as I was getting over the first. Within minutes yesterday, it went from my head to my chest. I can no longer breathe lying down, and breathing sitting up isn’t any great shakes either, so I suppose I either have pneumonia or close to it.

Dad was the last person to have pneumonia in this house. I remember the gurgling, coffee maker sound of his slow drowning, and the green froth that ran from his mouth in a steady stream. I found his death hard to watch and worse to listen to, but then he was my father. Attending a death is a privilege, and attending a parent’s death is a privilege many times over.

Thank God, my father died here at home, sans tubes, sans blood draws, sans all that kind of stuff that is a miracle to those who have a chance but torture to those who don’t. Save me from hospitals and nursing homes, if you please. If all else fails, and I am in pain, hide me in a ditch with a little bottle of morphine or, if you’re short on morphine, my .357, so I can die on my own terms, so I can embrace death as my final friend.

When Peggy was a young nurse, she took part in tying old people to their beds and treating them against their wills. After all, everyone knows that old people are senile even if they don’t act it. Besides, no person in his right mind would refuse everything that modern medicine had to offer, would he? No rational person would choose to die today if she could survive until tomorrow, regardless of the terms. Yes, Peggy did things then that she would not do now, and that were probably illegal even when she did them. But that’s one of the funny things about the law: large and respected institutions can simply ignore it when they think they’re helping someone, especially when the person they think they’re helping is powerless to resist. As it is said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

ORCAS is gone, I bike across town

Peggy drove across town today, and I later went to meet her on my bike. It was a two-hour trip—the way I did it. I biked streets that I hadn’t been on in a decade and others that I had never been on. I passed the Oregon Center for Applied Science (ORCAS) where I worked as an on-call handyman for years. Several blocks later, I realized that I hadn’t actually seen the two large buildings, so I biked back to discover that they were gone, torn down, all the way beneath the ground. Only the trees and parking lot remained. I could see where I parked, where I set up my sawhorses, and where I entered the buildings. I never imagined that all my work would be so quickly destroyed, and I felt bad about it, although the knowledge quickly came to me that I was but a minor player at ORCAS and therefore a minor loser. The irredeemable devastation before me became a metaphor for the end of all things as I stood in the gray overcast.

Shortly afterwards, I passed the Shari’s where Don and Dorrie took Peggy and me to eat. They were millionaires, so I expected something better, but Shari’s was their favorite place. Don died twelve years ago, and Dorrie soon followed; leaving their money to a son who is characterized by the arrogance and sense of entitlement that follow most rich men’s children.

On one part of my journey, I passed through a residential area of curving streets, most of which were named for trees that don’t grow naturally within a thousand miles of here. The day being cloudy, I might have lost my bearings if not for occasional sightings of the Coburg Hills. I forget how big Eugene has grown, how many hundreds of thousands of people carry on lives that I am in utter ignorance of, all within a short distance of my home.

I wasn’t exactly lost in these suburbs, but I didn’t know my route out either, and the thought came to me that a flat tire would present quite a problem. It would prevent me from either meeting Peggy or letting her know what had become of me. I saw no place except people’s yards to leave my bike; and I doubted my ability to walk out. I knew that I would have to knock on doors; and I knew that if I were the people behind those doors, I probably would not open them for fear of a home invasion robbery. I resolved to carry tools in the future.

Later, I passed two teenagers on a bike path. I studied them as they approached because they were on bikes that were so tiny—and with seats so low—that their knees practically touched their chins on the upstroke. One smiled at me and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” The other also smiled and said, “Do you want to fight?” I said nothing, and they screamed profanities. I took comfort in the thought that I could easily outrun them, not that I bothered to look back to see if they were in pursuit. I later wished (or half-wished) that I had talked to them in an effort to understand why they would abuse an old man (for I must have looked old to them) on a bike path; but this would have put me at risk of underestimating both the extent of their meanness and the extent of my ability to elicit their goodness. Riding a bike exposes a person to things he would never experience behind two tons of steel.

Cheap versus frugal

A year ago to the hour, I was having knee surgery. Today, my application to an experimental drug study for people with severe arthritis was accepted. I feared it might not be because, after all, how severe is severe? Surely, there are people who are worse off than I.

I upgraded my order for a new bike, putting it at $1,700. If my father knew I was spending that much on a bike, he would declare me a fool. The difference between us is that I am frugal whereas he was merely cheap. It’s a distinction that few people make. I rarely eat out because I place no value on eating out and because I can eat more economically at home, but when I do eat out, I order a cheap entrรฉe. If the cheap entrรฉes cost too much, I order a cup of soup or even a cup of coffee. I know plenty of people who think nothing of spending $30 on a meal but would turn pale at the prospect of a $1,700 bike. Few of us have unlimited money, so we must either prioritize or spend until we run out.

My father took another route. He carried thousands of dollars in his billfold (he never much trusted banks), rarely bought anything he didn’t have to have, and spent as little as possible on that. Even his carpentry tools were chosen more from a standpoint of price than of quality. But as I see it, he could have done worse. He could have said to hell with tomorrow and lived in debt. If he had, I would have pronounced him the fool, although being a fool in one area doesn’t disqualify a person from being brilliant in others.

Peggy and I share what I suspect are the two most important values to a happy marriage. We value money about the same, and we value housekeeping about the same. She’s a little freer with her spending than I, and I’m a little more opposed to clutter than she; but at least we’re in the same ballpark. We also excel in that each of us encourages the other to loosen the purse strings from time to time—as with this bike. If Peggy had balked about the price, I wouldn’t have ordered it, but the only time she balked was when I returned to the store to make an alteration, and she somehow thought I was going to cancel the order due to the cost. When I came home after spending hundreds of additional dollars on a stronger and more versatile frame, she was as pleased as I with my prudence.

I study Spanish to keep my brain young

I’ve been studying Spanish for two hours a day for the last ten days. I heard that it’s important to exercise your brain as you age, so I figured I should either do math or learn Spanish, and Spanish seemed the more practical.

Spanish has a lot of charming words like la falda (skirt) and funny words like el excusado (toilet), and it seems logically constructed compared to English, which is more like a house that was added onto by each of its twenty owners, none of whom had any talent for carpentry or design. This isn’t to say that I don’t love English. I adore English, but that’s because it’s my language and the language of my cultural forbearers. On the other hand, if I were a Spanish speaker who was trying to learn English, I would be pulling my hair out. The only thing that bothers me much about Spanish is that every noun in the whole language is either a boy noun or a girl noun. Who thought that up? The wall (la pared) is feminine, but the floor (el piso) and the ceiling (el cielo raso) are masculine. Go figure.

My first peace rally

I just came from a neighborhood candlelight peace vigil. We were two men, four women, two kids, and a dog—a peaceful dog, unlike my dogs, which I left at home. We stood in the middle of 17th and Van Buren; lit candles; sang a song; ate cookies; watched two nutria amble by; and were kept on our toes by four passing cars. I went mostly to please the woman who invited me. I had only met her once before (ten years ago), and found her to be true to her reputation as aggressive, argumentative, and all around obnoxious. Still, she lives but a block away, so when she interrupted my work to invite me to attend an event that she was hosting, I saw a chance to mend our relationship. I doubt that the event contributed anything to world peace, but maybe it helped on a smaller scale.

I daresay that I was the only person at the peace rally tonight who would want to do other than help society’s enemies, and this is one of the reasons that I rarely attend peace rallies. In fact, I don’t recall having ever attended a peace rally. Six adults, two kids, and a dog…guess I started out small enough. I suggested that we start a riot, but peaceful people are more, well, peaceful than they are amused by my offbeat humor. Of course, I am more prone to making sweeping generalizations than I am to peacefulness, so I guess we’re even.