Twenty years to go

Some thoughts on (almost) turning sixty (on March 1).

If you say to your friend when you’re 29, “I’m screwed-up because my parents were screwed-up,” your friend will look at you and say, “Well, I hope you’re able to get yourself together.” But if you say the same thing to your friend when you’re 59, your friend will just say, “You’re fucking pathetic. I don’t know why I hang out with you.” You can only ride that horse so far.

A life is like a history book in that, all else being equal, the more time it covers, the more stories it has to tell, and the better it can pull seemingly disparate themes into a congruent whole.

I in no way envy the young their youth (being so ignorant in so many ways wasn’t that great the first time around). I do envy them their health, their energy, their options, and the many years that they have left to live.

I have been a fundamentalist, and an atheist, and a lot of things in-between. I have also been a conservative, a liberal, and a moderate. As for a career, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Because I have been all over the map in so many areas of life, a part of me envies people who set out upon a road early on and never depart from it; but a bigger part suspects that they are more rigid than resolute.

The embarrassing part about getting old is that so many people my age are so foolish. I want respect for my experience, yet I don’t respect them for theirs. They might have learned a good bit in regard to practical matters (don’t touch a hot stove or drive fast on an icy road), but they remain appallingly deficient in depth and wisdom. Come to think of it, so do I. It’s just that they’re worse.

One might reasonably have hope for improvement in the young, but it’s harder to hope for the aged. Yet, I haven’t given up on myself. In fact, I’ve concluded that the day I turn sixty will be the day I am finally mature. I will still have odds and ends to work out, but the main themes of my life will be in order in just nine weeks. I can hardly wait.

I haven’t been carded in decades. No one has even looked like they were thinking about carding me in decades. In a way, I miss that, yet when I think back to when I was carded, I didn’t like it then, so maybe I wouldn’t like it now either. Maybe I would just think that there were entirely too many near-sighted store clerks.

I used to think that I was a very interesting person who had had a very interesting life. I still think this, but not too many people seem to agree. Maybe this is because they don’t know of anything I have excelled at.

I’m vague about what it means to excel. If you win an Olympic Gold Medal or a Nobel prize, I guess it means that you have excelled. But it would also mean that most people either haven’t excelled or else they have excelled somewhat obscurely. Does anyone regard himself as having hit that most excellent pinnacle above which nothing else lies? I wouldn’t know, but I have observed that, as a social species, it’s pretty hard for us to feel that we’ve done really well unless other people are out there applauding our efforts. Did Vincent Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson know that they had excelled?

Sitting here writing, I feel as though I should be doing something more important. Time is running out, so I must make the most of it. But what would be more important than this? I don’t know, but this doesn’t feel like enough. Maybe if I felt that I was expressing myself better. Maybe if I felt that more people cared about what I think. I so rarely feel that what I am doing is exactly the thing that I should be doing or that I am doing it in exactly the way it should be done.

I am always reaching for a feeling of rightness that I only rarely touch and never fully grasp, and even when I do grasp it, I might not recognize the fact until a lot later. Right now, I am thinking about a day Peggy and I spent in the Coast Range two years ago. Now, I see that that day was perfect, and I would be happy to relive it forever, but when that day was actually happening, I didn’t imagine that I would be sitting here now loving it completely. To love anything that much, I must have already lost it because, when it’s actually happening, I can always think of one or more teensy-tiny ways that it could be better. Later on, I don’t remember what those ways were.

No matter what your position, I can probably offer a reasonable argument in its favor even if I don’t believe it, simply because I used to believe it.

I used to expect some kind of unspecified quantum leap with every birthday, but it never came. This is what I got instead: I’m ten (double digits now!); I’m thirteen (a teenager!); I’m eighteen (old enough for the army to think I’m a man, but am I?); I’m twenty-one (old enough to vote, but why don’t I feel like a man yet?); I’m thirty (I guess I’m a man—if not now then when?); I’m forty (halfway to being dead—DEAD); I’m fifty (if I were a toaster, I would be halfway to being a genuine antique); I’m sixty (I’ll probably be dead in twenty years).

When I was young, I felt that my life had an ordained purpose that would be revealed to me someday. I wondered and wondered about this as the years went by without anything being revealed. I finally concluded that I was almost certainly wrong. After all, I had been wrong about a lot of other things that I used to think I knew for certain. For example, when I was six, I thought that nothing existed unless I was there to witness it—that people and places came into existence when I was present, and faded into nothingness when I went away. I also thought that I would be a boy forever because time was clearly passing far too slowly for me to ever grow up much less grow old.

If I don’t have a given purpose, then no one else is likely to either. This means that we do whatever we do while we’re alive, and then we’re dead, and that’s the end of the universe as far as we’re concerned. Kaput. Finé. Like a puff of smoke. Like a circle in the water where a child has thrown a rock. Later on, the universe too will die. Kaput. Finé. Like a puff of smoke…

Sometimes, something will happen that seems so timely, so apropos, that I think that, well, maybe there is some higher purpose going on here after all. But then I will say to myself that I’m grasping at straws, and I’ll be mad at myself for being unable to simply get on with living with what appears to be the case rather than forever longing for that which doesn’t appear to be the case.

I think of life as like a book or a movie that isn’t terribly good, but you stay with it because you expect it to come to a climax (otherwise, why would anyone have gone to the trouble of creating it?), and you want to see what that climax looks like. You wait, and you wait, and then the book (or the movie) ends with no climax ever being reached, and you feel cheated and even angry. You wish you had gone out and done something constructive instead of wasting your time. Only with life, there isn’t anything else you can go out and do.

Again, life is like boarding an airplane that moves away from the terminal but isn’t allowed to take off. Hours pass, and everyone says, “Screw this. We want out of here.” Only they won’t let you off. You don’t like it where you are, but you can’t go anyplace else, so you make the best of the situation. Some of us have the ability to do this better than others.

We are not equal. Some of us might try really hard to do well yet not accomplish much, while others of us might not try that hard yet accomplish a great deal. This makes it impossible to judge people because how can you judge them accurately if you can’t accurately identify and quantify what they had to struggle against? You can judge what they do, but you can’t judge who they are. They can’t even judge who they are. No one owns a calculator that can tally the inherent worth of anyone. Worth is always situational. We have all both failed and succeeded.

When he was really old, my father got religion. He was forever telling me about his latest conversations with God. Oftentimes, God would tell him that he had won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I thought that, okay, when he doesn’t get the money, he’ll give up all this nonsense about God. Wrong. Dad interpreted the fact that Ed Mahon hadn’t called him to appear on The Tonight Show as a test of his faith, and believed he would get the money later. Other times, God would tell him that the people at whatever church Dad was going to at the time were “hypocrites who didn’t know God,” and that Dad was to give them hell about it. So, Dad would stand up during the service and give them hell about it. Whenever Dad stopped going to a particular church, it was a sure thing that no one was going to call and ask what had become of him.

Dad’s weirdness about religion didn’t come as much of a surprise, because I had never known him when he was sane. But, sometimes, I worry that I too might become crazy when I am really old. I try to console myself with the thought that, since I never was as crazy as he was, I probably won’t become as crazy as he became. The problem with this is that I don’t regard myself as an exemplar of sanity either. In some ways, my father was tougher than I, and in other ways he was weaker; so where does this leave me? And who will take care of me the way I took care of him?

The time will come when either I die and leave Peggy alone, or she dies and leaves me alone. Odds are that I will leave her. Either way, it’s a piss-poor way to go.

Life goes on

8:30 a.m. I could tell that Peggy hated to go to work much worse than usual this morning, because she complained about it much less. Christmas is special to her, and she so recently lost her mother.

I cleaned house yesterday so little needs doing today. Peggy asked for a light supper, and I have no social plans. I worried that someone would invite me to dinner, but few people know I’m alone.

Christmas would ordinarily be an easy day in Labor and Delivery because of the lack of elective C-sections. Yet, there were nine births during Peggy’s shift yesterday, and she took it as a bad omen.

Peggy’s distaste for her job might be easier for me if I didn’t have it so good myself. Of course, good is a relative term. What I mean is that I have no big remodeling projects left, so my chores consist entirely of housework, yardwork, shopping, and other repetitious activities. Since there are only two of us, I worry that I’m not doing my share. Peggy works thirty hours a week and spends another two hours commuting; how many do I work? I really don’t know. It’s hard to count work that is done a little here and a little there.

I would guess that, however tired of her job Peggy is, I’m equally tired of mine. The best part of housework is that I don’t have to travel to do it, and I don’t have to get along with other people. The bad part is that it’s mind numbing. I would even say spirit killing. We own so much more than we need. This is not an opinion shared by Peggy.

The bad part of Peggy’s work is the unremitting stress, and the fact that everything has to be charted umpteen times on computerized forms that are never designed by the people who actually use them. She thrives to an extent on the adrenalin, but the forms (and what they represent) have turned her against nursing, which has become an ounce of patient care and a pound of covering everyone’s legal ass.

Peggy’s father didn’t decorate for Christmas. I would guess that a lot of widowers don’t, but that most widows do. Peggy said that most men probably wouldn’t decorate while their wives were alive if it was up to them. Probably, but that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy it.

On December 19h, we celebrated our 37th anniversary. The Episcopal priest who performed the ceremony warned us that every wedding he ever performed during Advent ended in divorce. That doesn’t seem likely in our case, but nothing should be taken for granted. After all, there was the woman who divorced her husband after sixty years. When a reporter asked why she did it, she replied, “Enough is enough.”

Behold my powerful deeds

As I arrived at the physical therapist’s, a man my age was leaving. As I left, another man my age was arriving. The three of us are in one of life’s predictable passageways. For most of my adult life, I regarded age-related disability as a personal failing, and thought I could avoid it if I ate right and exercised. Now I see that the body wears out no matter what. Even so, I remain an exemplary man, an inspiration to all who know me. To wit:

I drink my liquor straight.

I use six times the coffee grounds of an ordinary mortal.

I eat habaneros with every meal (habaneros being 44 times hotter than jalapenos).

I pee into the wind, and the wind flees before my mighty torrent.

Regarding these things, I say to my wife: “Behold, wife, your man’s powerful deeds and confess that he walks the earth a man among men, the terror of babies and the savior of tyrants.

My wife says back to me: “Forsooth, husband, I do behold my man’s powerful deeds, and I do confess that his few surviving taste buds packed their little suitcases and moved far away; furthermore, his shoes smell like urine.”

So much for the intellectual equality of women.

Trying to communicate about the sacred when beliefs are in conflict

To my surprise, Lynn answered my letter of November 28, regarding her “If You Don’t Believe in God, then Sit Down and Shut-up” forward. Here is her response, followed by my answer.


I received your post some days ago but didn't want to send just some flippant response since you obviously spent some time composing your message.

Of course your points are very valid that along the way in history many people in the minority had to speak up in order to be heard and to direct change. In all the instances you list, the minority was suffering great injustices--personal and physical harm, not to mention fear. No one would dispute that.

At least for me, the point of the original post was that the voice of the American majority is being silenced because a few in the minority are offended. I read the article to point to the cases where law suits have been filed against school prayer (which may or may not be valid--I don't think it should be shoved down anyone's throat but if you want to pray, man, you're going to find a way to do it so why can't we all join in? If you don't want to you do what my nephew does when he attends Catholic church and doesn't kneel, sit in the pew and let others pray on their knees. It's called respect.) Other suits have been filed against public display of the ten commandments, which are the cornerstone of our laws. Why can't we put them on the courthouse wall? I personally don't think the founding fathers meant that religion and government should be totally separate. What I think they meant was that the government couldn't force you to attend a particular church or church at all if you didn't want to. However, I don't think they meant that you could say “Because I don't like this then the MAJORITY has to stop.” I don't believe in celebrating Jewish or Muslim holidays but I think they have a right to celebrate them.

Here’s the deal. I teach in a public school, and I can't teach the true meaning of Christmas without it being in the context of Christmas around the world! Should one of Christianity’s most sacred holidays be reduced to Santa Claus and sugar cookies? And don’t even think about Easter and its true meaning. Stick to bunnies and eggs and everything’s ok.

We spend time learning about Kwanza and Hanukkah and Ramadan and Eid, which is valuable to our culture exchange. This, too, is called respect. It helps us know where others are coming from. Why not the same treatment toward Christian holidays and literature? If we're all going to “just get along” then we should all take part in learning about each other.

I’m not sure why it is that lately the “minority” is offended by Christian doctrine that has been a part of this country since its inception. If it has worked this long (“in God we trust” on our money; “one nation under God” in our pledge; the Ten Commandments in public) why is it all of a sudden politically correct to stand against those things? Who does this hurt? We aren’t talking slavery or Nazism or genocide here. We are talking about retaining a core value system that used to mean something in America.

So, perhaps telling them to sit down and shut up is harsh. Yet, that is exactly what Christians are being told to do. Are you saying that it is our turn? Are you saying that, by demanding that our Christian heritage keep its place in our society we are somehow creating an injustice for those who don't believe?


Dear Lynn,

I am honored by the time you put into presenting your thoughts. I had much rather hear from someone who respectfully challenges me to think than from someone who merely echoes my opinions. I will take the liberty of responding somewhat. I don't know if you are interested in hearing more of my thoughts on the subject, so no reply is anticipated, although one would be welcomed.

“…the ten commandments, which are the cornerstone of our laws.”

The first four of the Ten Commandments concern our relationship with God, yet God was not mentioned in the Constitution (despite tremendous pressure to do so) because the goal was a secular government. Of the other six commandments—the ones that relate to our relationships with one another—the Israelites didn’t need to be told that murder, theft, lying, greed, adultery, and contempt for one’s parents, harmed the social order because people everywhere already knew this.

“I don’t think they [the founding fathers] meant that you could say, “Because I don’t like this then the MAJORITY has to stop.’”

Are you saying that you would accept without protest the removal of every mention of God from money, public buildings, legislative prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance, and so forth if that was what the majority wanted? While I agree with you that attempts to accomplish such an end often seem frivolous and unnecessarily divisive, I feel the same way about attempts to make such references more widespread.

“I teach in a public school, and I can’t teach the true meaning of Christmas without it being in the context of Christmas around the world!’”

Almost every culture has created holidays that coincide with the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and our present push toward political correctness and multiculturalism has made such subjects very difficult for teachers. I too get tired of the turmoil. Fire stations here in Eugene can no longer have Christmas trees because a Wiccan complained that they are Christian symbols that remind her of witch burnings.

“I’m not sure why it is that lately the ‘minority’ is offended by Christian doctrine that has been a part of this country since its inception. If it has worked this long (‘in God we trust’ on our money; ‘one nation under God’ in our pledge; the Ten Commandments in public) why is it all of a sudden politically correct to stand against those things?”

“In God We Trust” first appeared on coins in 1864 and on paper money in 1957. It didn’t appear on the flags of Georgia and Florida or on the license plates of Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Ohio until THIS century. “One nation under God” was also a latecomer, not appearing in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.

Both believers and nonbelievers have always protested these slogans (Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “[It is] my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins…does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege... it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.” –What would he say about putting God on a muddy old car tag?!) Yet, even if no one had protested religious references 100 years ago, why would that preclude a person’s right to protest them today?

“…perhaps telling them to sit down and shut up is harsh. Yet, that is exactly what Christians are being told to do. Are you saying that it is our turn?”

No. I was instead reacting to the implied demand that anyone be denied freedom of speech. I don’t feel strongly about the issue itself one way or the other since I see it as symbolic rather than substantive. You obviously see it as substantive, as do those who bring suit against such references.

Now for a bit of a footnote. I belong to the Masons and the IOOF. Both lodges require a belief in God, but they don’t define what God is. I define God as the awe that I feel toward numerous things including nature, art, and music. I furthermore define God as existing in the intimacy I share with other people (and even animals) and in such virtues as compassion and courage. To many of my fellow lodge members, I would be an atheist, yet I do not regard myself as an atheist because my “spirituality” is of supreme importance to me. Yours is of supreme importance to you, and I envy you the comfort that your belief in a benevolent God and in an eternal heaven must bring. You believe that, in the end, all things will go according to a divine plan, and I do not.

My lodges don’t, so far as I know, say why a belief in God is essential. I’m sure one reason is that the word God is often mentioned in our rituals. I have no problem with this. In fact, I very much enjoy religious observances and, for several years served as chaplain in one of my lodges. Do I believe then that some powerful being heard the prayers I led? No, but I do believe that lodge prayers are a way of affirming our values and bonding us together. If we had a member who said, “Hell no, I’m not going to take part in praying and, in fact, I’m going to try to put an end to it,” that unity would be disrupted. For my part, I would wonder why he joined in the first place and why he was making such a big deal out of such a small thing since he would have the same freedom we all have to define God. But lodges are private institutions that belong only to their members; the government belongs to us all.

I suspect that my lodges also require a belief in God for another reason, and to that one I would object strenuously. I suspect that our founders felt that a belief in a supernatural lawgiver was essential to morality, and that it never occurred to them that people such as myself who have no such belief would join. I would say to them that we don’t need God to tell us that it is wrong to rape, steal, or murder, and I would even suggest that, if a divine voice should thunder from the heavens telling us that these things were okay after all, that voice would be wrong.

I see no positive connection between a belief in a supernatural lawgiver and morality, although—as with the Ten Commandments—moral precepts are often put into the mouth of a deity in an attempt to give them more weight. It is my observation that this is more likely to lead to evil than to good. Moslems are notable today for doing dreadful things in the name of their deity, but for hundreds of years both Christians and Israelis behaved just as badly. If the evil of one exceeded that of the other, it was not because the one was more vicious but because it found more people to oppress.

It is commonly said that these religions were not to blame for the evil done in their name. I deny this totally for I have read the Bible, and I know very well what vile words it puts into the mouth of God. It was one such passage that, at age twelve, set me on a road that led away from Christianity. Moses, at God’s command, has sent the Israelites to annihilate one of the many tribes that already occupied the land that God “gave” the Jews. Utter destruction, even down to the animals, was the rule during such attacks, but here God made an exception:

"Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." (Numbers 31: 17-18)

And with this cheery verse, I will leave you for now. Again, I thank you for your reply. Even though we disagree in many ways, I am honored to hear your thoughts.

Still dead, I should think

Today, I took the dogs biking; visited a sick neighbor in the hospital; got another neighbor to take me to pick up my computer (Peggy had the van); and went to appointments with two doctors and a physical therapist. Tonight, one of my three lodges holds its biweekly meeting. I had rather stay home and rest, but I feel duty bound to go, it being a small lodge and me being an officer.

I haven’t written about my health issues lately. When I last wrote, I said that my fifth cervical vertebra is not malignant. That’s the good news; the bad news is that it’s dead (osteonecrotic in doctor jargon). No one knows why it is dead, but I’m supposed to have another MRI in February to see how it is doing (still dead, I should think). Now, I am having appreciable pain in another vertebra halfway down my back, and the first doctor I saw today (my internist) speculated that it too might be dead. I didn’t ask if he anticipates another biopsy based upon the results of the MRI he ordered because the answer seemed obvious. Besides, he looked so bummed on my behalf that I didn’t want to make things harder for him than they already are. As silly as this sounds, there is some truth to it.

I told the internist that my shoulders are doing well enough that I would like to give physical therapy a new try with a new therapist. He wrote out an order, and I saw Chris four hours later on a cancellation. He spent a solid hour testing my strength, sensation, and range of motion, and predicted significant disability if things continue as they are. This came as no surprise. He wants to work on my posture and on improving strength and flexibility in my upper neck and shoulders. This came as no surprise either; I have been tackling these problems on my own.

Later, I had my second visit with an orthopedist who only performs non-surgical treatments. Since every other orthopedist I’ve ever seen loves to cut people open, I don’t know if his is a heartfelt position or if he is simply a klutz with a scalpel. I wouldn’t have even seen him following my appointment with the physical therapist if he hadn’t been expecting me. He sent me home with literature about something called prolotherapy. I don’t know much about it, but I wasn’t impressed with what he told me or with his snap diagnosis of superior-cava-something-or-other.

He was the third orthopedist I have seen about my shoulder problems, and all three gave me different diagnoses. I have also seen two neurologists, and each of them gave me a different diagnosis as well. You always hear about the importance of getting a second opinion. I’ve had five. Some were reached—and treatments accordingly prescribed—so fast that I hardly had time to sit down. My last neurologist (the one who did my neck biopsy) literally recommended a second surgery only to run from her office while I was at the scheduling desk to tell me she had changed her mind. I give her credit for having the guts to make herself look bad.

So, you might wonder, why have I seen five doctors about one problem? Do I just really like doctors and want to support them financially as best I can; or am I hoping for ever more prescriptions for ever stronger dope; or am I just entirely too hard to please? Well, I’ve been referred around some, and that accounts for the two neurologists. As for the orthopedists, I left one because she thought my shoulder problem was arthritis, and I didn’t believe her because my shoulders started hurting at the same time and practically overnight. I then went to second orthopedist, and he recommended surgery; so I went to the third orthopedist in hope of finding a non-surgical solution. During all this running in and out of doctor’s offices, I discovered that my backbone is falling apart.

Hence, I am here, now, today, hurting in my back, neck, and shoulders, and feeling quite drained by it all, and really not wanting to take my bike out into the cold night air to go to lodge… I wish I could believe there is going to be a happy end to it all, but I don’t. At least not at the moment, although I keep plugging away as best I can, there being nothing else I can do.