Futility is but a value judgment that I impose over reality

I didn’t see Phil today, and he was asleep yesterday, his breath shallow and five times the speed of my own. His coming death is unexpectedly hard for me. As I saw it, he and I were supposed to be among the few who would carry on the lodge when the older members died out.

I am so depressed over his imminent loss that I am having trouble coping. I am in my third day of failed attempts at a carpentry project that should have taken but a few hours. As for my studies in natural history, I can scarcely see the point. I reflected tonight that if all the seconds of all the lives of every human who ever lived were added together, the number would compare unfavorably to one raindrop against the totality of all raindrops. Where is comfort to be found in our brief temporality?

This is hardly the first time that I have experienced depression, and I worry that such intermittent moroseness will undermine my health. I can well imagine Virginia Woolf walking into the surf, or Ernest Hemingway blowing his head off after a failed attempt to throw himself into an airplane propeller. The desire for death becomes almost too great to be denied by the earliest and most certain method available, no matter how grotesquely unthinkable it would appear in ordinary moments. I do not know how to survive such times other than to wait them out, my marriage negating any genuine threat of suicide.

I sometimes think that I should at least get drunk in order to buy a brief respite, but I am blessed in that I have no great appetite for alcohol, and actually tend to drink more when I feel good than when I feel bad. Thus deprived of all obtainable comforts, I carry on as normally as I can, confident in my belief that the darker the night, the brighter will be the coming day—or so it has been in the past. But always, I know that there will come another night, and that I can no more resist it than I can resist the revolution of the planets.

And so I thrash about for any ready diversion. Last night, I read about the Confederate general, John Bell Hood. He lost an arm in one battle, a leg in another, and finally succumbed to yellow fever at age forty-eight. “At least, I have beaten him,” I say to myself, “for I am a full ten years his senior, and my limbs are intact.” It seems a very odd thing to simultaneously wish for dissolution and to rejoice in reading about the people I have outlived. It’s as though some remote part of me is mocking my misery. This part serves to remind me that, even if all the dire things I might say about the state of the universe and my part in it are true, sadness is not a given. While sadness might be a given for some other reason (hormonal, perhaps), it is not a given due to futility, because futility is not reality. Futility is a value judgment that I impose upon reality, and sadness is but the outcome of that value judgment.

Another visit with Phil, misplaced compassion

I spent a few agreeable hours with Phil today. He was awake and talkative, but I could understand little of what he said. “I am miserable,” I caught, along with, “I am going to die.” Frustrated with his inability to speak, he often tried to point at what he wanted, but his muscle control was no better than his control over his voice. The twenty-year old CNA was happy for me to take over most of Phil’s care. I told him I would return tomorrow—if Phil is alive tomorrow. And Phil might well be alive tomorrow and for several subsequent days as well. People who bet on how quickly someone will die are prone to underestimating the tenacity of the human body. (I read today of a British man who, when he was ninety, bet $200 that he would live to be 100. The bookmaker figured the odds at 250 to one, and lost $500,000.)

I felt little pity or repulsion today, just a firm resolve to never allow myself to die in such a manner. Phil remains too proud to let anyone feed him, yet he is too helpless to perform his basic bodily functions unaided. I imagine a contradiction here, but then I believe in suicide and euthanasia as an honorable way to avoid suffering, waste, and indignity, whereas Phil regards life as a gift that only God can give and that only God should take.

I used to be a CNA, so I know what it is like to be awake at 6:00 a.m. shaving the faces of drooling idiots (not that Phil has sunk so low). When I did such work, I would ponder the millions of dollars a year that taxpayers spend to keep such people alive, and I came to regard it is a criminal act. There never has been and never will be enough money for everything, so why waste it on those who are so hopeless that they don’t even understand the concept of hope, on those who are so brainless that it is hard to tell their good days from their bad or even to determine whether they have good days and bad days?

I often find myself in such extreme opposition to the values of society, especially in regard to compassion and justice. Tonight, there is a hip-hop concert at the fairgrounds. The band last appeared in Salem, where their performance was brought to an early end by gang gunfire and fistfights. I am therefore under some small apprehension that a bullet could come flying through my wall. Yet, I don’t blame screwed-up kids for the existence of gangs; I blame society for the existence of gangs, because we could stop them, and we don’t.

One approach would be to simply kill the bastards. A complementary approach might be to set aside parcels of land, and make them into law-free zones where gangs could do as they pleased. They could die of overdoses; they could kill and torture one another; they could rape one another’s hoes; they could do anything whatsoever without the least apprehension that anyone would help or hinder. Hip hop “artists” would try to shame anyone who lacked the courage to visit such enclaves, while those who buy into the values of hip-hop could have a gay old time of it for however long they wanted—just so they stayed at least twenty-four hours.

The smell of cancer

I visited Phil in the hospital today. He was neither awake nor asleep, and his hands kept grasping at things I couldn’t see. He gurgled like my father did as he lay dying, and the percolator-like sound made the last thirteen years disappear in an instant. Tears that never fell for my father, fell for my friend. An aide asked if I was his brother. I said I was, realizing for the first time that Phil and I could be mistaken for relatives. The staff treated me more familiarly than they would had I said I was his friend. They even left him in my care for a while.

Phil awakened, and tried to eat from a tray that had been in the room when I got there. He waved his spoon over his food like a magician trying to conjure a rabbit. Now and then, spoon and food would touch, and he would lift the resultant smudge of gravy or tapioca to his lips. I offered to feed him, but he would have none of it. I sat on my hands in frustration. An hour later, he gave up on the spoon, and tried to eat his applesauce directly from its plastic container. He couldn’t get the container turned so that the opening was toward his face, so I removed the foil completely, and watched as he tried to lap the applesauce with his tongue. I began to laugh. Phil didn’t care. He knows me too well.

He was in a talkative mood, but his speech was as amorphous as his movements, and I could only catch one word out of twenty. “Here I am,” I told myself, “missing out on what might well be my friend’s dying words.” This too struck me as funny.

The stench of cancer caused me to choke down vomit at times. A physical therapist asked the belligerent man in the next bed where he was. “Sacred Heart,” he replied confidently. “Can you tell me what kind of a place Sacred Heart is?” she persisted. He paused. “A large industrial complex with office buildings.” “Not bad,” I thought. The nurse continued, “Do you know what year this is?” “1976.” “Good guess,” I told myself—“close enough for working purposes anyway.” “Do you know what time of year it is?” Under my breath: “Geez, lady, he’s already missed the year by three decades. What is it you want here? Are you really going to chart” ‘Patient off on the correct year by thirty-one, but hit the month dead-on.’”

Phil’s room was six stories up and directly over Hilyard Street. I wondered if I could aim well enough to land in the back of a passing pickup (it tickled me to imagine how high the people in the front would jump), but reflected that the pavement looked more welcoming. I thought it a good day to die. Not the best, perhaps, due to a chill wind and a growing cloud cover, but not the worst either. I looked across Hilyard at the parking garage from which a woman jumped onto the top of the Subway Restaurant. She had told the shrink in the ER that she was suicidal, but he didn’t believe her. That’s the way it is at “a large industrial complex with office buildings” when you don’t have insurance.

I pictured Phil lying in that bed until he drowned, just as my father had. Give me a bullet to the head any day. Seriously. Take me to the woods; shoot me in the head; and leave me for critter chow. It’s a lot to ask, of course, and so I asked myself if I would do as much for Phil. “Yes,” I thought. “If Phil wanted it, and if I wouldn’t go to jail, I would blow Phil’s brains out, and watch the smoke waft from the hole in his head.”

I wondered if a wild animal would eat a malignant tumor. Some creatures will eat shit, and a lot of creatures will eat carrion; but I find it hard to believe that anything but a fire would eat cancer.

But then Phil wouldn’t want to be put away. Phil would choose life no matter what. I live everyday with the thought that I am dying. Phil didn’t think he was dying until this week. Long after everyone else accepted the fact that good old Phil wasn’t going to be good old Phil much longer, Phil was saying that he was going to beat this thing. It’s easy to think that we’re all basically alike, but we’re not. Phil’s tough. Phil’s a great deal tougher than I, at least emotionally, yet he’s going to die younger.

I caressed Phil’s thigh as he tried to eat. At my touch, his spoon paused in midair, and he tried to look at me through his remaining eye, but he couldn’t raise his head enough. The spoon resumed its arcs through space, and we sat in silence as I held his leg, and wished so very, very much that I could give him a long life. I left a note for Molly in which I offered to stay with Phil overnight, but as I biked home, the smell of cancer seemed to grow stronger with every passing block. Still, I will go if I am called, and I will be honored.

Biking Winberry

Peggy got her new bike yesterday, and we biked up Winberry Mountain today. Winberry is not a prestigious peak, but after three miles of a continuous 20% grade, we found it adequate, and our bikes found it more than adequate. Bikes, we’ve discovered, dislike hills, and despise mountains. I cannot say why—although I have certainly wondered. If a bike were a car or even a motorcycle, I could understand a certain amount of antipathy, but their riders are their motors. My best guess is that they are afraid of heights, because the steeper the slope, the more frozen—as with fear—their pedals become, and the greater the determination of their handlebars to go in any direction but up. And if the road is tilted to the side—as was today’s road—their back tires evince an appalling determination to slide off the gravel and down the mountain, leaving the front tire and the rider to carry on as best they can.

We—Peggy and I—are weary tonight. Her thighs are cramping, and my knee hurts more than a little, but not so much that I am screaming and writhing, at least not noticeably. Upon returning home, we exchanged our new bikes for our old ones, and rode to the U of O to hear a presentation entitled Amphibians of the Northern Oregon Cascades. Peggy found this final cycling insult galling to her thighs, and the fact that she was nearly run down by a speeding woman at an intersection did not improve her outlook. The driver apologized profusely, cried, offered us money, apologized profusely again, hugged Peggy, apologized profusely a third and a fourth time, hugged Peggy a second time, and walked away trembling. Peggy was also upset, but the driver’s emotions were so intense that Peggy found it necessary to comfort the very person whose bumper had just brushed her fender. I was not sure at first but what the driver was going to leave the scene, so I wrote her tag number on my palm. She saw me do this, and it could explain her apologetic reaction.

The dogs accompanied us easily on the trip up Winberry, but the trip back being downhill, Bonnie (who is now nine) was especially fatigued despite numerous stops. I really don’t know how to reconcile the dogs’ needs with ours. The most isolated roads near Eugene are in the Willamette National Forest (a tract the size of New Jersey), and they are all mountainous. This means that finding roads and trails that are both isolated and doable is all but impossible. I study topo maps, not to find a lot of places we can all comfortably go, but simply to find a few places.

I was surprised by Peggy’s considerable speed coming down Winberry since she was so cautious on her old Raleigh. In places, the gravel was loose and the road a washboard. There were also curves, low-hanging limbs, winter storm debris, and potholes. I enjoy the challenge of such an environment, yet I lack the experience to know my limits. Peggy and I later spoke of numerous moments when our back wheels were no longer following our front, and they were not comforting moments. There were even times when I was bouncing so rapidly that I had trouble focusing upon what was in front of me.

My biggest fear of bicycling (in town or in the woods) is that I won’t see something coming. Just last night, I ran up onto a curb that I didn’t see. Luckily, it was rounded at the top so I was able to stay upright, but barely. When I consider how many close calls we have had on bicycles, I almost wonder if we should ride them. Since I can no longer hike, and Peggy’s knees aren’t holding up so well either, the answer is not difficult.

Virginia Tech

If 32 Americans were killed in Iraq, how many hours of news coverage would they get? Or if 132 were killed in car wrecks during prom week? Without the media to tell us, we wouldn’t know what was important.

I heard of the Virginia Tech shootings over Fox News while I waited in the service lounge of the local Chevy dealership. I heard of it, and heard of it, and heard of it; for three and one half hours, I heard of it. In the background, Barry Manilow sang romantic music, and the grill of a $66,000 Cadillac truck reflected a harsh fluorescent glow against the gray day that drooped beyond the floor to ceiling windows. Occasionally, I would take a walk among the acres of cars. Battleship-size SUVs are not a thing of the past, I thought, as I noted the twenty inch tires on Tahoes and Escalades.

Fox had nothing new or remotely reliable to show or report, yet it couldn’t keep from showing and reporting, with split screen coverage no less. Every few minutes, the same police dogs sniffed the same spot of grass on one side of the screen while the same photographers photographed the same other photographers on the other. The announcer interviewed a student over the telephone. “Like, me and my roommate heard that the killer chained the doors,” she reported dutifully over a bad connection. “Did I understand you to say that the killer chained the doors?” the announcer asked in what I took to be mock horror. “Well, like, that’s what the man on the TV said.”

The “fair and impartial” network decided early on that Virginia Tech was to blame for not closing the campus after the first shootings, and every question was framed to prove it. The day dragged on, and I wondered why I didn’t care more. I felt bored in advance by the coming days of eulogies, analyses, and blame; and I wanted to go home. Beyond that, my thoughts were as lifeless as the machines by which I was surrounded, any one of which cost more than most people in the Third World earn in a lifetime of making things for Americans. A dozen other customers watched the flat-screen TV alongside me, and no one said anything. No one looked like they felt anything. Maybe they too just wanted to go home.

The dealership had a café, and outside the café there stood a fountain that kept throwing water back into the rainy skies, but the rain just kept on falling, and falling, and falling. I wished I had a new lover. A new lover would make me feel alive. A new lover would make me feel that something mattered. A new lover would give me a new illusion, and a new illusion would devour my thoughts, at least until she wasn’t new anymore.

I had wine for supper tonight, and I will blame what I just wrote on it, because the responsibility simply cannot be my own. The shooter at Virginia Tech—was he responsible? All the explanations we are likely to hear will be either dismissive or excusatory. They will prove that he was crazy or evil, or they will prove that society is crazy or evil, but that’s as far as they will go, and it’s not very far. Maybe we don’t really want to understand him because “…if you stare long enough into the Abyss, the Abyss stares also into you.” Surely, the shooter at Virginia Tech stared into the abyss for an awfully long time.

Don't come unless you're whole-hog enthusiastic

I just sent a letter about city priorities to the Register Guard. If it is printed, my name will be mud in the bicycle activist community just as it is already mud in the peace activist community. Most groups prefer no support at all to support that is qualified or ambivalent. This makes me a marginal member, at best, in every group I join. I am marginal in my lodges, because I do not believe in a personal god. I am marginal in my mineral club, because I have no interest in lapidary. I am marginal in the butterfly society that I recently started attending, because I am more interested in plants.

One of the things I valued about the anti-tax protest was that Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Libertarians, all came together in harmony to gather signatures, and no one thought it necessary to discuss our differences. I think it safe to say that we even delighted in the fact that our differences didn’t matter. I only wish I could feel that way in other groups. What I have often found—with cause-oriented groups especially—is that, because many of the members think the same about a variety of other issues, they don’t realize how exclusionary they are. Liberal groups are worse about this because people are blindest to their failings in areas they pride themselves on most, areas such as tolerance and openness.