Blind dogs, ethics, money, and other considerations

If your dog has a good life, you can take most of the credit. If you dog has a crummy life, you can take most of the blame. This makes it hard to own a dog.

But why would your dog have a crummy life?

Many reasons. For example, I have a blue heeler and a miniature schnauzer. The schnauzer only asks for affection, but the blue heeler was born to run from sun-up to sundown. Until she got old, no amount of exercise that I could give her was enough. I tore rotator cuffs in both shoulders partly from throwing her ball with a throwing stick hundreds of times a week for a decade, yet I never threw it enough. This is why I will never have another blue heeler. It ain’t ethical to buy a dog who has needs that you can’t provide, but I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew she was a herd dog, but I thought that just meant she had the ability to run all day, not that she needed to run all day.

Her name is Bonnie. I named her that because she is beautiful. Last week, she stopped eating. I figured she was under the weather, but I had no idea that she was critically ill until Christmas day when she could barely stand. I took her to the emergency veterinary hospital, and they diagnosed her with autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Her hematocrit count was 10%, which was one point above being “incompatible with life.” The treatment estimate was $1,500 at the low end, just to stabilize her. Bonnie is twelve, which is the average life expectancy for her breed. She is also blind. Peggy was at work, but I knew that she would want to spend whatever it took. Still, I demurred until I called her.

Bonnie spent the next two nights at the edge of death. Yesterday, I was advised to take her home, not because she was doing great, but because they had done all they could for her. I was unable to shove pills down her throat with my arm in a sling, and Peggy had flown to North Carolina hours earlier, so my neighbors helped with the medication. I spent the next twenty hours desperately trying to get Bonnie to eat and drink, and watching for signs of respiratory distress. Her breathing was so slow that, many times, I thought she was dead. For hours on end, she would lie completely still with her eyes open. Meanwhile, my shoulders hurt; the day—like most Oregon days in winter—was cold and gray and, to top things off, I broke my glasses.

As usual, I had to drug myself to quiet the pain enough to go to sleep in my recliner last night with ice packs on both shoulders. Even then, I awakened several times to see if Bonnie was still alive and to offer her food and water. Today being Monday, I called her usual vet as soon as his office opened, and was told to bring her right over. She was looking a little better by then. With his fee, her medical bill is now at $1,900.

I’m frugal. I was raised by people who never took a dog or a cat to the vet no matter what. Then there is Bonnie’s advanced age and the fact that she’s blind. It hurts to spend the money, but I couldn’t forgive myself if I let her die without a fight. She wouldn’t let me die without a fight. But what is the limit of what I am willing to spend—$5,000, $10,000? I don’t know. I hope I never find out.

I look at pictures of how she was just a few short years ago. The second hardest thing about owning a dog is that they age so fast.

When Bonnie moved in, she weighed three pounds and, being a herd dog, she naturally assumed that she had been hired as the household CEO. Peggy was at a loss. She couldn’t bring herself to come down hard on Bonnie, so Bonnie ran all over her. I had no such problem. Our dominance struggle came to a head one night when Bonnie was six months old, and we were alone. When she took my supper off the TV tray with me sitting there looking at her, I shook my finger in her face, and she bit it—hard. Her eyes immediately got big because she realized that she had overextended. There commenced a chase through the house, which ended when I cornered her in the laundry room and slammed the door behind me. I flipped her onto her back, and lay on top of her screaming, “Goddamn you, you better never fucking bite me again you little Australian sack of shit!” She was so scared she wet herself. You probably won’t find captioned illustrations of this particular dog training technique in any book, but it worked wonderfully. True, she has bitten me since then, but it was always in some context that I could understand if not appreciate. For example, if we were roughhousing and I got carried away. That night was the last time I ever felt the need to scold Bonnie harshly. Since then, if I but raise my voice to her, she looks as if her world has collapsed.

Peggy and Bonnie eventually worked out their own relationship, but it took years. For awhile, Peggy would get exasperated and say, “Make Bonnie obey me,” but I ended that scheme pretty quickly because I didn’t want to undermine what little authority Peggy had.

I didn’t want to buy Bonnie, and we weren’t even looking for a dog when we got her, but Peggy saw her (in a pet shop window I’m ashamed to say since it probably means she came from a puppy mill), and felt that their souls were psychically bound. Coming from a decidedly non woo-woo Peggy, that was quite a statement. A few weeks later, I came home to find Peggy so angry she wanted to take Bonnie to the pound. Bonnie had gotten mad for no good reason that Peggy could see and had bitten her hard enough to draw blood. “Ha, ha, ha,” I asked, “whatever happened to your psychic bond? Ha, ha, ha.” Strangely enough, my show of compassion didn’t assuage Peggy’s anger, but time did—as I knew it would. Peggy is nothing if not loyal.

Now, today, Bonnie is on the floor beside me, and I don’t know if she will be alive this time tomorrow. I’ve lost dogs, and I’ve lost parents, but dogs are harder, partly because they’re so much like children, and partly because the relationship lacks all the emotional baggage.

Used to be that when something I loved died, I was just bummed over that one death. Now, when something I love dies, it’s as if all the deaths of everything I ever did and ever will love are encapsulated in that death. It’s one thing to know in theory that all things will die in some seemingly remote future, but quite another to understand to the core of my bones how much it will hurt when they do and how quickly that future will come. Only Peggy’s death could grieve me more than Bonnie’s.

One day, Bonnie discovered that she could carry her ball and her Frisbee at the same time by upturning her Frisbee and placing her ball in the hollow. What’s really uncanny about many dogs—Bonnie more than most—is how seemingly psychic they are. When Peggy and I go somewhere, Bonnie and Baxter (our schnauzer) always want to go too, but Bonnie knows long before we leave whether we’re taking them or not, whereas Baxter is clueless until we go out the gate. How do I know she knows? Because she sits in the corner, growls, and looks morose. Even now that she’s blind, she still figures it out in some way that I can’t imagine.

Two dogs died while Peggy and I were at the emergency veterinary hospital. I learned about their deaths from the wails of their humans. I have seldom witnessed men crying audibly in public. Peggy said the crying made things harder for her. I had the opposite response. Often, I get so lost in my grief that I feel as if I’m alone in hell while the rest of the world is going happily on its way. After all, as I move through my day, I rarely witness obvious misery. People—in offices and stores—look like they’re okay. Maybe the reason I was drawn to working in ambulances, hospitals, and funeral homes when I was a young man was because I wanted to witness grief as a way to come to terms with my own grief. I never have though.

When Bonnie dies, my world, as I know it, will end, and things will never be the same. I know this because I never get over any death of a loved one. The sorrow lessens, it is true, but all those sorrows together also accumulate, and my heart grows heavier with the years, and with the thought that Peggy—and I, but especially Peggy—only have two or three decades left. We celebrated our 38th anniversary on December 19, and if those years passed rapidly, how much more rapidly will our remaining time pass?

My heart is a sea of grief. I cannot save that which I love, no matter how much I love it, no matter how hard I try, and no matter how much money I spend.

“Be ye in the world but not of the world.”

Jesus said that. Ted Kaczynski and John Allen Muhammad were two of the many who lived it for their own reasons and in their own ways.

After my surgery in March, I either took narcotics or sleeping pills but never both together. Now that I’m in pain from that surgery and from this surgery, I take whatever it takes to get some sleep, usually 300 mgs of Demerol and a kick-ass sleeping pill. During the day, I feel off-balance, monotone, and incommunicative, a remote observer of the world but not a participant—welcome or otherwise—in the world. I wouldn’t choose to live this way, but it’s interesting place to visit. For one thing, it leads me to wonder whether loners are typically cynical and anti-social because they unfairly deprecate the virtues of their fellowman or because their remoteness permits a more astute discernment.

My reading has been two biographies of Robert E. Howard—the creator of Conan the Barbarian—whose own sense of separateness led him to commit suicide at age thirty. To feel so separate from life while reading about someone with whom I can exquisitely identify, someone who was shunned and ridiculed by the society he hated, accentuates my alienation.

You see, I think it possible that I understand Tim McVeigh (about whom I’ve also read) and others like him who were considered too monstrous to deserve understanding even if it were possible. Let me be clear. I don’t defend indiscriminate killing, but neither do I find it inconceivable that a person could turn to it. I’ll share some fantasies that are intended to illustrate my point, although they might simply make you doubt my sanity.

In one fantasy, I have six months to live, plenty of money, and no family. I can expect to maintain my strength and faculties right up until the end. How might I spend these months, I ask myself. Should I party, travel, volunteer at an animal shelter, write a book, drink a lot of booze and eat a lot of chocolate? The possibilities seem endless, but in my fantasy, I think that, well, what if I traveled about the country and snuffed a few greedy lawyers, politicians, and CEOs—the kind of people everyone hates but no one can touch. Steal $50 from a 7-11 and go to prison. Steal millions from the public, have the taxpayer save your ass, and give yourself a bonus. Nobody can get to these guys, and that’s not right. The question in my mind is not whether they deserve to die, but whether it would be a good idea to kill them.

Here’s where you might remind me about the rule of law. If you believe in the rule of law, good for you, but tell me, how many robber barons do you see in prison? Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Madoff. Congratulations, that’s two. Do you know how outrageous they had to become and how long they had to stay that way before the SEC, the Justice Department, and other law enforcement agencies could no longer feign ignorance? Look at the millions of people they harmed and the billions of dollars they lost, and tell me about your faith in the system. Don’t you get it? The system is created by the very people who are making a killing from it. If a 7-11 bandit conglomerate owned Congress, they would make themselves eligible for a government bailout if they had a bad year robbing convenience stores. The lawmakers, bankers, pharmaceutical executives, insurance conglomerates, and others who get rich by screwing us are NOT on our side and they are NEVER going to do anything to help us that they don’t have to do to stay in power. For sure, they don’t want a revolution, but they know that as long as most of us can afford SUVs, wide-screen TVs, and other societal opiates, we’re not really going to demand action about needlessly dying ecosystems or needlessly dying people. You see it in the healthcare debate: “I’ve got insurance, so why should I care about you, loser?”

So, someone takes it into his head to make like Charles Bronson in Death Wish, only instead of killing petty thieves and back alley murderers, he snuffs bigtime thieves and legalized murderers. Would it make a difference? I don’t know. I hearken back to the little boy on the beach who was busy throwing stranded fish into the water when a cynical old man pointed out that he wasn’t making any real difference given the enormity of the problem. “I made a difference to that one,” the boy responded.

You’re not going to make the world a really great place no matter what you do. Take my fantasy. I couldn’t kill enough bad men to get them all, and others would replace them anyway. Then too, the question arises as to who is bad. Is a hedge fund manager worse than his shoeshine boy because he’s less virtuous or because he’s more powerful? I suspect the latter, and this points to a major problem with any attempt to better the world.

Remember the United Auto Workers? In the sixties, all the hell these guys did was strike. Their dinky little assembly line jobs took every bit of thirty minutes to learn, yet they had one thing going for them as a substitute for skill, drive, creativity, and intelligence—they had a network of allied unions that absolutely scared the bejesus out of management. The benefits they received ran the price of cars through the roof almost overnight and were a significant factor in the eventual failure of the Big Three. No, it’s not just the richest who are the greediest. It’s not really even about income. It’s about power, and the fact is that the people who have the most money are usually the people who have the most power. So, let’s say that I was able to kill every last exploitative CEO in America, it wouldn’t make any lasting difference. It might feel good, like shooting the man who raped your sister might feel good, but in a few days or years, the killings would be just be another story in a yellowing newspaper.

So, what’s a guy with such a dismal appraisal of the human race to do? For one thing, I’m not really likely to roam the night with a sniper rife, and this leaves but two complementary possibilities. One is to follow the example of the little boy on the beach by doing however much direct good I can, and the second is to avoid collusion with evil. The first is easy enough, but the second is more than I am willing to take on because it would mean, for one thing, not paying taxes when I know full well that the government is going to use my tax money to promote evil. Now, if I lived alone, I could image pulling this off with considerable success, but it would mean an austere and secretive lifestyle that I can’t very well impose on Peggy.

I’m not even sure but what voting amounts to collusion with evil because it gives tacit support to the fiction that the people are in charge when the only real power the people have is to choose between candidates pre-approved by corporations, and one must ask oneself how different they are anyway. Face it, no candidate who fails to win the support of a sizeable number of corporations is going to have a prayer, yet the only way to win the support of corporations is to sell your soul. Republicans seem more amendable to this than Democrats, which is why I support Democrats, but it’s a dirty choice to have to make when the guy who I really want to support, I rarely do support because I know he can’t win without corporate backing.

Obama capped-out as last week—as far as I was concerned—when he accepted that Nobel Peace Prize. Peace through war? Sure, why not? Just think of all the wars America has waged during my lifetime alone, and just look at how peaceful we’ve made the world. I wondered how Bin Laden’s speech would have differed from Obama's if he had won the Nobel Peace Prize (if one warring leader can win it, why not another?). He too would have spoke of creating peace through war, but he might have wavered a little when he got to the part about assuring the strait-laced and strait-faced Nobel audience that HIS war would be a nice war in which only the most humane rules for killing people were followed.

My knowledge of war would indicate that ALL rules go out the window when (a) one side is at a significant disadvantage or (b) the rewards of abandoning them are considerable. For example, what happened to America’s humane rules when we bombed Tokyo, Hiroshima, Dresden, and Nagasaki; or when we supported countless rulers who tortured and impoverished their own people; or when we violated the basic rights of our own citizens through the Patriot Act or the rights of foreign citizens through rendition and enhanced interrogation; or when we stole Native American lands, violated every treaty we ever made with them, and adopted a “nits make lice” policy toward their children; or when we lied repeatedly about attacks—or planned attacks—on our country in order to rally support for attacking somebody else’s country? And how about our rules regarding “acceptable collateral damage” (i.e. the number of innocent bystanders it’s okay to kill)? Would these deaths be acceptable if they were in Omaha instead of Kabul? Inquiring minds want to know.

Maybe Obama means that we’ve become a “kinder, gentler people” (as Bush so laughably put it) just within the past few days. I really don’t know—maybe I was too drugged to hear the news. I do know that I don’t want to pay for these wars, or these politicians, or these bankers, or this endless waste and destruction that define what it means to be an American.

Vote to change America? I might was well vote to change the orbit of Mars, but if I do ever vote again, it will be for the guy who says, “War sucks, and if I’m elected, I’m going to get us the hell out.” I’ve had it with knuckling under in the name of practicality. Voting for Obama was the end of the road. It’s a damn shame that nobody who has a chance of winning can be trusted.

Remember, they belong to the same species as you

I am ashamed to admit that I regularly try to deceive myself into thinking that my species is more intelligent than I actually believe it to be. I do this because it's so damn depressing to think that decisions that affect millions of people, if not the entire planet, are in the hands of morons. This video raked its way across my brain like a road burn. Do I then think that liberals or independents would have responded to similar questions with more intelligence? Not necessarily, but conceivably. I say this because Palin Republicans take pride in their Joe Sixpack anti-intellectualism. Other voters might be equally ignorant, but they don't imply that ignorance is a virtue by referring only to the provincial and the undereducated as "real Americans." Remember, these book-buyers are not apathetic voters; these are true believers who might reasonably be expected to know something about the issues. Of course, it's possible that the interviewer rejected a thousand intelligent supporters in favor of thirty of the other variety. One can but hope.

Under the nice surgeon's knife and out again

My two-hour surgery started yesterday morning at 8:00. The nerve block wore off last night at 1:00, so I took a sleeping pill and two Percocets. When they didn’t help, I had no choice but to wait four hours before moving up to Demerol, but even with Demerol, the pain forced me from my chair every 45 minutes. Once up, I would stumble about the house for a while, catch up on a blog or two, and change out my ice pack. As crappy as the night was, the pain was physical rather than emotional, and physical pain is nearly always easier to bear. Indeed, I’ve grown so accustomed to it that I’m confident in my strength to endure it, plus I see no place to go but up, the pain being so outrageously bad that it’s darkly funny.

Speaking of things that are darkly funny, I had a good late night chuckle when I damn near tripped over my blind dog and crashed through the living room window, which measures four feet by seven feet. Such a dramatic exit from a warm house onto a cold sidewalk would have capped the day off nicely, I thought. One thing about the universe is that no matter how much crap it throws at you, there’s still plenty in reserve.

Despite the pain, I’m high on the fact that my surgery has become an event of history rather than a source of dread. I fully expect months of misery, but I can almost make out a light at the end of the tunnel, and that feels really good.

Upon losing followers

I lost another follower today. Sometimes, I offend people because I don’t make myself clear; other times because I do. Causing offense is one of the downsides of being: (a) utterly opinionated; (b) seeing myself as the smartest person in the universe; (c) not really liking or respecting humanity in general; and (d) being totally off-the-wall terrified about my upcoming surgery and therefore less than sensitive to people’s feelings.

For months, my list of followers grew, and I became increasingly distressed because I couldn’t keep up with their blogs as diligently as some of them kept up with mine. Now, I’m slowly losing followers. In one way, I’m glad because I can start getting a handle on paying attention to those who have remained loyal. In another way, I’m sad because it reinforces my belief that I’m not terribly likeable. How ironic, this desire to be loved by everyone despite the fact that I give most people little reason to love me. I would like them to see beyond the gruff exterior behind which I often appear and to realize that it’s partially composed of scar tissue, but why should I expect so much from people whose intelligence I credit so little? Because I want to be proven wrong.

Here’s the thing. I agonize over this blog. You would not believe the hours I put into trying to get to the core truths behind every post, trying to weed out every superfluous word. I like to think I’m good at this. I like to think my blog is more deserving of your attention than those many blogs that are, in effect, stream of consciousness diaries. Do I succeed? Hell if I know. I often edit until I can scarcely make sense of what I’ve written. To understand what I mean, think of how your impression of a song changes after it has been stuck in your head for days, or how you feel when you stand so close to a painting that you can no longer see what it represents.

When I lost that follower today, it strengthened my conviction that who I am within my deepest self is never going to have mass appeal. My writing will mean a lot to a few but less than nothing to the many. They will find me heavy, intense, cynical, and irreverent, and I will find them silly, credulous, and superficial. Yet, writing, for me, is a matter of such deep integrity that I can unhesitatingly promise you that I will do my best to represent myself fully in the areas into which I delve; not simply as an exercise in omphaloskepsis, but as a way to get to some truth that I can but hope will resonate with your own truth. At best, my truth will stimulate you to look more deeply for your own truth, even though it differs from mine.

Today, I have little time to edit because I am down to measuring the time until surgery in hours rather than days, but what this post lacks in care, perhaps it makes up for in passion.

I’m so wired I don’t need coffee

Surgeons rarely kill people. They might screw them up, but they don’t normally leave them dead as a doornail on the operating table. Anesthesiologists are more likely to do that. How weird is it then that people choose their surgeons but take whichever anesthesiologist walks through the door? I made a big deal today of requesting the same anesthesiologist I had in March. I liked how he dealt with my sleep apnea, and he and Mark (my surgeon) obviously liked one another.

This brings me to another thing to ponder when you’re having surgery. You want to do what little you can to insure that your surgical team works well together because a successful surgery is never a one man affair. This is why I didn’t ask Mark to operate at my usual hospital—the big one where Peggy works—even though Peggy wanted me to. Better for me to be in a strange environment than for him to be in a strange environment.

I went both to the hospital and to Mark’s office for my pre-op today. The lady at the hospital smiled when she said I wouldn’t “have to be stuck” for blood tests. I said I wanted to be stuck, so she stuck me. The negative results were welcome after all these months of heavy medications.

The lady at Mark’s office said he would be in shortly to talk to me about my upcoming shoulder replacement. “I’m not having a shoulder replacement,” I said. “I’m having arthroscopic surgery on my left rotator cuff, which is to include an acromioplasty, a bursectomy, a supraspinatus repair, a glenohumeral joint debridement, articular cartilage restoration, and a few other odds and ends, but no shoulder replacement.” “Since the surgery on your right shoulder went so badly, he wants to go ahead and replace your left one at the outset,” she said. Peggy and I looked at one another. When Mark came in, he said there had been a mix-up.

If I didn’t trust him, I would have needed an explanation, but a good patient needs a good doctor more than a good doctor needs a good patient so I don’t rock the boat unless it matters. Besides, we had a lot to talk about. Like the following, which I wrote for him and will condense for you. It might not look like much, but it contains considerable learning, some of which might be of benefit to you someday.

“Prescription-related challenges and requests”

“Sleeping in a chair while in pain was a major problem last time (I was in that chair for four months), and I fear it will be this time too.

“I’ve learned that a good sleeping pill is often preferable to a narcotic because it: (1) enables me to get to sleep sitting in a chair, (2) enables me to stay asleep through a surprising amount of pain, (3) lasts twice as long, and (4) doesn’t make me itch. I would therefore like to rely on sleeping pills more and narcotics less. The Restoril you prescribed works well, but one can develop a tolerance in ten days, so I did some research and came up with Dalmane as a reasonable companion.

“Ron at Peace Health Pharmacy agreed that Dalmane is my “best bet” as a companion to the Restoril, and added that it has the advantage of being stronger and longer acting. I also have some Ambien on hand, but he confirmed my observation that it isn’t all that strong and wears off quickly. My insurance requires prior authorization for Ambien CR, but I have a coupon for a four-night sample if you see fit to authorize it. I also have a coupon for a week’s worth of Lunesta—which is also a wuss drug compared to Restoril and Dalmane.

“The reason I am so enamored of sleeping pills is that I’ve never had a really great experience with a narcotic whereas (aside from a little day-after grogginess) I’ve never had a bad experience with a sleeping pill. Of course, I’ll never complain that you’re ordering too many blood tests to verify that I’m not inadvertently poisoning myself.

“So, here is what I would request.

A painkiller. Maybe more Demerol, since it’s the only narcotic that doesn’t make me itch.

Dalmane (flurazepam hydrochloride). 30 mg is the usual dose. If you specify tablets rather than capsules, I can start with half a dose (I always prefer tablets for this reason). As with everything else, I can get three months’ worth for the price of two, so if you prescribe 90, I won’t need a second prescription.

“I’m set for Restoril and I don't need a prescription to buy all the stool softener that a person could ever want to own.”

Mark gave me what I wanted but not as much as I wanted. Sometimes, he will give me a lot of something, and other times he won’t. I can see no rhyme or reason in this, so I suspect it’s simply a matter of mood or attentiveness, but I never ask about it. These drugs are addictive, and that alone makes it impolitic to ask for bigger bottles. Just asking for a particular mood-altering drug can put a doctor on guard, yet I do it all the time because I’ve learned that I have to be my own authority to an extent. No doctor can know what works for me, and no doctor will spend one one-thousandth as much time as I will focused on what I need. In my experience, most doctors aren’t even that good at pain control. They basically have one or two favorite drugs that they give to everyone who walks through the door. Some doctors even view a patient's request for pain control as a sign of weakness or addiction. They are unworthy of their profession. People in pain need to feel empowered.

I spend so much time thinking about and reading about drugs that I even give them personalities. Vicodin? A skinny little nymph for those days when you need just a whiff of a narcotic. Norco? Vicodin’s big sister (her parents didn’t want a baby back then, and that’s why they gave her that crappy name.) Percocet? Full-figured and cuddly. Demerol? The thinking man’s drug because it makes a man sit and think—even when he would prefer to get up and do something. Ambien? When it’s 3:00 a.m., and I’m not in a lot of pain but I can’t get back to sleep either, Ambien comes like a sleepy-time angel with long white wings and a long white gown. Restoril? A fatherly hand that covers my eyes and drowns my pain in the waters of oblivion.

As I approach this latest surgery, my main comfort is that the things I’ve learned should give me a better shot at sleep and pain control even if this recovery is as bad as the one I started in March—for which I still sleep with ice packs. And, who knows—maybe it won’t be as bad. After a little vodka, I can even think of it as a grand adventure—sort of like a trip to an exotic land, only with a lot of pain and disability thrown-in at no extra charge.

But even if it is as bad, things could still be A LOT worse. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer's, kidney failure, liver cancer, complex regional pain syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis… Yes, things could be worse. I have no real complaint, but sometimes I get carried away by fear as if fear were itself a drug. I picture it as a big horse with frantic eyes and frothing lips. It keeps running faster and faster, and I struggle mightily just to stay in the saddle because to fall would be unthinkable.

Where am I?

I have given but little time to blogs lately--my own or others--because I am preparing for shoulder surgery in December on the shoulder opposite the one that had been done in the photo. After surgery, I will be limited to using one arm for three months, so I am working to get as many chores out of the way as possible. If something important occurs in your life that you want me to know about, please post it in the form of a response to my last entry.

Why not die?

Three days ago, I got an email from a follower (I’ll call her Jackie) who asked if I could think of a reason she shouldn’t kill herself. I wasn’t surprised that Jackie was considering suicide, but I was surprised that she would solicit my opinion about such an important matter. You see, no one other than Peggy ever solicits my opinion about anything. My opinion is so NOT solicited (or accepted when offered) that I think of myself as like a reverse salesman—if you want to talk someone out of something, just send me to talk them into it. I can’t really say why this is so because my opinions are often excellent. After all, I’m smart, diversely educated, slow to act, a deep thinker, an extensive fact gatherer, and old enough to have experienced a lot of life and seen the results of a lot of decisions.

I was about to rake the leaves when Jackie’s mail arrived, and I wasn’t in the mood for such discourse, but I knew that I couldn’t delay my response lest the day end with my yard clean but my friend dead. Such an outcome might have soured me on yard work permanently. Besides, I was honored that she wrote to ME because—as I said—no one ever solicits my opinion.

I had little thought for what I might say when I sat down to write, but little trepidation either because I am more effective on paper than in person, plus I have given suicide A LOT of thought over many years as a solution to my own problems. Yet, I recognized that I probably had little if anything to say to Jackie that she didn’t already know. One of the downsides of aging is the realization that, aside from information pertaining to specific disciplines, you’re not likely to learn much from other people. This is probably why suicidal psychiatrists don’t tend to seek help. I mean, what could anyone possibly say to a suicidal psychiatrist?

The last time someone told me that she (it was a she that time too) had been thinking about suicide, she put it this way. “I was sitting in the kitchen with the rifle barrel against my chest, wondering if I would really pull the trigger, and then Dale walked in. When I saw the look in his eyes, it scared me, and I realized that I really needed to turn my life around.”

I thought this meant that she HAD turned her life around (after all, she seemed happy). A few days later, she was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest (that’s me, then Dale, and then her at the top of the page). If you really want people to think about you A LOT after you are dead, just tell them you’re thinking about killing yourself, and then kill yourself. If you want them to remember you their whole lives long as if you had JUST died, that will do it. Believe me, they will NEVER get over your death. My friend, Kathleen, has been dead thirty years, and I still haven’t run out of tears.

Anyway, I sat down to have a go at a response to Jackie based upon my knowledge that people who suffer from cancer, alcoholism, chronic pain, or almost anything else tend to get along better with the support of their peers than with the support of trained counselors. This is because they feel better understood and know that what they are hearing is real rather than theoretical. So, I told myself, I will be real. It’s really all that I had to offer. As I reread what I wrote, it seems woefully inadequate. Maybe you can think of something more.

Dear Jackie,

I’m glad to see from your letter that I’m not the final strand in your last string, but I’m still worried that you’ve sat by your computer all day becoming increasingly despondent as you reflected that maybe I haven’t written because I don’t care about you or because I resent your coming to me. Neither is the case. I simply haven’t been indoors.

As for reasons to not commit suicide, it is a subject that I think about a lot since I am often tempted. In my case, it would be an extraordinary situation in which I would do such a thing to Peggy without her consent, and she wouldn't give her consent unless I was in extreme and hopeless pain or suffering from a terminal illness. You too have relatives who need you to stay alive, so you too must behave responsibly. You must make suicide—when and if you do it—an honorable retirement from life, devoid of shame or failure. It can be, after all, an exemplary act; not an ignominious retreat but a sensible and well-timed withdrawal.

Suicide to me is like a get-out-of-jail-free-card that I take comfort in holding in case all else fails. Even without Peggy to consider, I doubt that I would do it anytime soon because I still have reason to hope that my health will improve, and at least a few things left to enjoy; but even if I were to lose both Peggy and these, there might still be some good that I could accomplish. If nothing else, I could comfort dogs at the pound. Yet, the temptation to kill myself is often with me when I’m in pain, or fretting over the fact that I have lived long but accomplished little, or feeling overwhelmed by the possibility that my health will get worse. I’m not a prisoner without means but a free man with guns and drugs, and I am grateful for them. I’ve rehearsed every detail of how I would make my exit, so it is simply a case of going to the station, so to speak, from which I would book my passage into the Dark Land to which all go but none return.

Anyway, these thoughts are what come without much reflection, but with the conviction that days of reflection would not yield anything more profound. I hope that you can find meaning (or at least pleasure) in your life apart from your family, but if not, you do have people whose own lot would be made miserable without you, and that alone makes your escape untenable.

“When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” Nietzsche

Just remember that suicidal thoughts can take on a life of their own. The more you dwell on it, the less frightening it appears, and the more likely you are to deceive yourself into thinking that the very loved ones who are holding you to life would be better off without you. I would therefore ask that you limit your excursions to only the outskirts of that cold land. Think of suicide as simply one of many options, albeit the last.

Finally, there is the wee small chance that there might actually be another life awaiting you beyond the grave, a life that will be made better or worse according to how you live this life. Imagine thinking that you are permanently escaping your pain only to awaken someplace where you are in worse pain and without even the appearance of escape. Such a prospect need not preclude suicide, but it should make us more careful to use it as a dignified retreat rather than a humiliating rout.

With love and respect,

What's hot; what's not (aka something to offend everyone)

I was leaving the library when I saw her; I did a u-turn. She wore a short skirt with long stockings that had black and white horizontal stripes. The little bit of skin that showed between stockings and skirt drove me crazy. She looked at me looking at her, and it wasn’t a friendly look. I hate it when women dress to attract attention, and then become offended when they attract attention. Maybe if I too had been twenty…

I like women in boots too, but I would lose readers if I alluded to them in the way that Charles Perrault alluded to a cat who wore boots—even though I think it sounds funny. Anyway, I like women in boots. I like them A LOT. Short boots, tall boots, majorette boots, cowgirl boots, I don’t care; I just like women in boots. Only I like them a lot better if they’re wearing shorts or skirts with those boots.

Tattoos? No. Nose rings? Oink no! Eyebrow studs? God forbid. High heels? Only if you consider an ambulatory disability sexy. Make-up? A very little is okay. Skirts over pants? Latter day hippies just look silly and unoriginal. Torn jeans? Only a decadent culture affects poverty as a fashion statement.

What I look for in how a woman dresses is a mixture of funk and creativity. I call it flair. But not all women can pull it off. Some women who wear funky hats, vintage clothes, and oversize jewelry just look like they own a few too many cats. Cat women definitely aren’t my thing, but maybe that’s because I got burned by one. Before her, I didn’t think about cats much. Now, I’m more into women who have dogs, but no more than one or two.

Women with sad eyes—wow. Maybe this is because I equate sorrow with depth and happiness with superficiality, or maybe it’s because I think I can save them. Anyway, women with sad eyes make me crazy. I just want to throw myself at their feet and crawl up their legs, serpent-like. You might say, “Bullshit, sad women don’t have more depth; they just have a hormone deficiency.” Okay, whatever… Fact is, I’m in no mood for objective truth, so I would ask that you bear with me even if I sound stupid. After all, you probably sound stupid sometimes too.

One problem I have (okay, one among MANY) is that I like women who dress with flair, yet women who dress so provocatively that men will fantasy about them for 20 years after a brief sighting in the library are almost certainly extroverts, and I prefer introverts because, again, I think the latter have more depth. Extroverts are like pond skimmers that never really alight, and introverts are like fish that hangout in the mud and gloom at the bottom.

What else do you like?

You really want to know? I mean, REALLY?

I am in such suspense that I can hardly catch my breath.

Which brings me to panting women, which are another major turn-on. As are women who smell like human beings instead of like gardenias or some other crap that comes out of a bottle. It’s a really dirty woman who needs to shower to please me, and I have no problem with body hair either unless it’s so thick that it looks like it should be on a man.

Maturity, depth, and erudition also turn me on, but I’ll tell you the embarrassing truth. A silly and shallow fifteen year old can LOOK awfully good even though my paternal instincts outweigh my prurient ones.

One other thing, and it’s a biggie. I like a woman who has seen it all, and who is damn hard to frighten or offend. Maybe this is because I was raised by a mother who never stopped feigning the innocence of a child and who seemed offended by pretty much everything that had anything to do with sex. This turn-on is one reason that I like older women, although I quit writing off younger women after I read Carson McCullers. The accumulation of years is far less important than who a woman is inside; youth doesn’t have to mean innocence or na├»vet├ę, and age doesn’t necessarily imply worldliness.

Blondes are good because they look like they’re wearing halos when they’re in the sunshine, but then long-haired blonde men look that way too from behind, and I always feel cheated when they turn around (in fact, I want to slug them for getting me aroused over nothing). A woman’s eyes and shape are far more important than hair color. Besides, I think of brunettes and redheads as having more depth.

Mental problems and a history of suicide attempts also point to depth because the ability to adjust to this world would seem to imply a certain callousness and superficiality. Yeah, I know. Yet again, I’m confusing depth with hormone deficiencies. But then what ARE we, really? You might be right; it might ALL be a question of hormones, but that makes no difference. We all PRETEND that our lives have a deeper substance, a spiritual reality, if you will. I don’t think this is true, but I live as if it is. Cut us open, and we’re the same as pigs, but we don’t treat one another like pigs.

So, how does Peggy measure up to all this? Not so good, thankfully. You see, I recognize something of a gap between the qualities that look hot and the qualities that make a long-term relationship possible. It’s a little like wanting vodka when what you really need is a good meal. Peggy is the good meal. Besides, she has put up with me for 38 years, and I owe her for that. Besides that, what we lack in our ability to deeply understand one another is more than made up for by our love for one another. I can never again marry a woman when we are both young and stay with her until we are approaching old age, and that means a lot to me.

You want to know what depth is in a relationship? I’ll tell you, my child. It’s not hot sex or heart-to-heart talks. Well, maybe it is. But more than these, depth is when you put someone else’s name on your bank account (assuming there’s anything in it) knowing full well that that person could walk away with everything you’ve worked a lifetime for, yet trusting that she won’t EVEN IF she should come to hate your guts. Peggy looks hot, AND she’s deeply affectionate, AND she has unquestioned integrity. It’s a hell of an attractive combination, yet it has never dampened my desire for other women. The new and unknown is appealing because it is new and unknown, and there’s no depth to such an appeal. It’s mostly—maybe exclusively—a matter of hormones.


At Belief-o-Matic, you answer 20 questions and get a list of how closely your beliefs align with those of 27 religions and denominations. It gets a tad ridiculous at the bottom where you learn how closely you match up with groups that would like nothing better than to burn you at the stake, but I found it accurate enough at the top. Here’s my top five.

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (96%)
3. Liberal Quakers (79%)
4. Nontheist (77%)
5. Neo-Pagan (70%)

Let me know how you come out. (

Last visit

I’ve been seeing Mark (my orthopedist—that’s him in the photo) every six weeks since my surgery in March, and I always take a written update in order to better describe any changes. This is yesterday’s update.

“Until ten days ago, the pain in my right shoulder was worse than when I last saw you, and the pain in my left shoulder had increased to the point that both shoulders interfered greatly with my sleep. They hurt similarly, as if someone were jabbing them with broomsticks. Percocet only quieted the pain enough for me to sleep an hour or two at a time, and it made me itch considerably even with the Benadryl. My middle back below the shoulder blades continues to hurt day and night, and I can’t sleep comfortably in any position.

“I had long feared that the shoulder pain would become bad enough that I would have to sleep in a chair again. I dreaded doing so, but was glad to know that I at least had a way to escape the worst of the pain if all else failed. All else did fail so, two weeks ago, I returned to a chair only to find that the pain in both shoulders was as bad there as in bed.

“I saw no change after my thirty days on a raw food diet, so I stopped both it and the acupuncture three weeks ago, and started taking SAM-e, MSM, glucosamine, and raw ginger. I am also drinking an extra gallon of water each day and have doubled my intake of fish and fish oil.

“Ten days ago, the nighttime pain in both shoulders began to decrease, and I have since been able to sleep three or four nights without medication, although I still use ice packs all night every night. During the day, my right shoulder, at its worse, still hurts as if a bee were stinging me deep inside the joint with the pain radiating down the outside of my upper arm. At its best, the joint itches so badly that I feel compelled to scratch it, although scratching does no good. The left shoulder feels slightly stiff during the day but is seldom painful.

“The following is a comprehensive list of factors other than arthritis that can cause continued pain after tendon repair. I’m enclosing it on the off chance that you might have overlooked some rare problem.”

“Brachial plexopathy, Cervical radiculopathy, Long-thoracic neuropathy, Neoplasm, Reflex sympathetic dystrophy, Spinal-accessory neuropathy, Suprascapular neuropathy, Thoracic outlet syndrome, Adhesive capsulitis, Articular cartilage defect, Bicipital tendonitis, Instability, Lateral tears, Acromioclavicular arthropathy, Deltoid insufficiency, Rotator cuff defect, Subacromial impingement”

The fact that the right shoulder seems to be improving precludes a joint replacement on that side—the side he operated on in March—and only in my worst moments do I contemplate one anyway because, once the bone is gone, it’s gone forever, and the replacements just aren’t that good. The 70% tendon tear in the left shoulder doesn’t justify the risks of sewing it up in the absence of significant pain or disability. I have had both, but since they seem to be lessening, Mark suggested that we hold off, and I happily agreed. We didn’t schedule another visit.

I left his office with mixed feelings. Although he hasn’t been able to do anything to help me—other than narcotics and sleeping pills—since my surgery on March 27, I took comfort in having at long last found a doctor I could trust and talk to, and I feel a little lonely now that I can no longer say, “I’m under the care of a physician.” Or a physical therapist for that matter. I’m entirely on my own, and I fear that I still have a long way to go. Fortunately, what I have already gone through has made me stronger on the inside even while debilitating me on the outside.

Something of substance

When I was a Mississippi teacher in a school that was half black and half white, nearly all of my black students and half of my white students qualified for free lunches. In a school where no one was rich, picture one quarter of the student population having to buy that which the other three-quarters get for free. Now, picture the parents of that one-quarter having to pay for their own children’s lunches and, through their taxes, for the lunches of the other students. Such situations build resentment. When I asked in a previous post why it might be that the very parts of the country that have the poorest people are also the parts that so vehemently oppose a national health care system, no one answered. I think that one reason is just such resentment. The South contains a lot of seriously pissed-off people, and I can’t bring myself to put them down too harshly because I’ve seen the world through their eyes.

I support national health care because I also see how miserable and hopeless my own precarious health situation would be if I were to lose my private insurance in a state that has a waiting list for Medicaid. If you become too sick to work, you lose your job, and when you lose your job, you lose your insurance. You can’t buy more insurance because you’re sick and you have no job. What is the message in this? That your life is worthless aside from your ability to earn money with which to buy insurance? I would be astounded if you could find a single person who is desperately ill and can't afford treatment who opposes national health care. If I am right, what you have here is a situation in which those who have their own needs met simply don’t care a whole hell of lot about those who don’t. Perhaps, they blame them for having the problem.

I have been corresponding with a man named Aaron who opposes national health care, and I promised him that I would address the issue here for the simple reason that I feel better about spending inordinate amounts of time writing for my blog than I do writing letters. Aaron’s argument is that private charities should take on the problem. When I pointed out that they’re already unable to do this, his response was that government is to blame, not just for their failure, but for the soaring cost of medical care. He offered two primary reasons for this. First, by pumping taxpayer money into Medicaid and Medicare the government guarantees healthcare providers an income. This stifles competition, and no competition means higher prices. Second, government sets standards for medical facilities, procedures, personnel, and so forth; and the necessity of meeting these standards also runs prices up.

I spent five hours in McKenzie Willamette Medical Center last March for outpatient surgery, and I was comforted to know that my caregivers met government standards. Those five hours cost $18,695, and that didn’t include the surgeon’s bill, the anesthesiologist’s bill, or anything else. When medications, x-rays, blood tests, follow up doctor’s visits, physical therapy appointments, three MRIs ($1,300 each), and so forth, were included, that one outpatient procedure cost more than $40,000, and the bills are still coming in because I’m still needing follow-up care.

Let’s say that Aaron is right, and that if government stopped paying for any medical care for anyone and got out of the business of setting standards for doctors, drugs, procedures, and facilities; health care costs would drop. He didn’t give a percentage, but for sake of argument, let’s imagine that they would drop by two-thirds. Instead of $40,000, my bill would have been $13,333. If I were among the many who work a 40-hour week for the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, I would have to work almost a year (46 weeks) to pay for that one surgery. Since I’m in worse shape now than I was before the surgery, I would be unable to work at all if I were a manual laborer, and no work would mean no income and no income would mean no insurance.

Under Aaron’s proposal, I would be obliged to appeal to private charity for help. This would mean filling out applications for one or more charities and going through what would surely be an extensive screening process. Would I go to one charity for health care assistance and other charities for food, heating oil, and help with the mortgage? And if approved, would I be approved for whatever was necessary, or would I have to have every procedure, every drug, and every office visit to every specialist approved separately and in advance? Would the charity then comb through every bill and negotiate a lower price with the provider as insurance companies do? Would there be a yearly—or a lifetime—maximum that they would—or could—spend?

Now, let’s multiply my problem by the millions who would need help, and let’s imagine that instead of being sixty and needing shoulder surgery, I’m eighty and suffering from dementia and kidney failure and need round the clock nursing care and weekly dialysis. Talk about health care rationing! Talk about death panels! How else could it play out? Private charities could no more pick up the tab for health care than they could pay for building roads or maintaining the military.

Just think of the millions of people who are chronically ill or aging, thousands of them unable to even seek help on their own behalf, and tell me that a network of charities could work. A fundraiser was recently held at a pizza joint here for a little boy who was severely injured when a drunk driver hit the car he was in, killing everyone but that child. $10,000 was raised. Think of it. $10,000 for a severely injured child who might need a lifetime of care. How many pizza feeds would Aaron propose and for how many children? And what would become of people like the old man with dementia if no one wanted to hold fundraisers for them? Under Aaron’s plan, they would die. Those who were on top in our society would still drive their Lexus’s and live in their 5,000 square foot hillside mini-mansions with the five car garages, while those who were less fortunate would be left to suffer and perish, literally by the roadside. When we Americans talk about how much a person is worth when what we mean is how much money does he have, we’re not speaking metaphorically.

Yet, I do not think believe that my friend Aaron is heartless, or else I would not call him my friend. I actually think he is an idealist who sincerely believes that laissez faire capitalism would lead to a better world for everyone. I also suspect that he is a bit of an ideologue, but maybe I project. I was once a devotee of Ayn Rand because she made it all look so good on paper. In her books, the capitalists were creative and hardworking visionaries of uncompromising virtue; the socialists self-aggrandizing manipulators devoid of integrity; and there was no middle ground. Then I read about the Industrial Revolution, a time that came nearer to her vision of unrestrained capitalism than any other era. And what happened? The very few got very rich upon the backs of the very many. Human beings were treated like machine parts that were so cheap and plentiful that their welfare was not worthy of consideration.

Children were chained to work stations twelve hours a day seven days a week. Their emaciated bodies shivered wretchedly in thin rags in the winter and dropped from heat exhaustion in the summer. They became stooped from overwork; they got rickets from bread and water diets; they lost fingers, hands, and sometimes their lives to noisy and dangerous machinery. They died from breathing noxious chemicals or absorbing them through their skins. Laissez faire capitalism meant no fire codes, so they perished by the hundreds in burning factories. And when workers died because of the negligence of their employers, their families got NOTHING but poorer, sadder, and more desperate. Meanwhile, the children of the rich partied before moving from their city mansions in winter to their country—or European—mansions in summer, all while gaily dressed in the furs of slaughtered animals and the plumages of endangered birds. They might as well have gone all out like those Nazis who made handicrafts from the skins of laborers who died of exposure and exhaustion.

America then was like many of the so-called “Developing Nations” are today, and it would take a stretch of the imagination to imagine anything more cruel. But that’s what unrestrained capitalism looks like; a few ruthless men (mostly men) making more money before lunch than hundreds of their employees will earn in their short miserable lives. Whatever the evils of socialism, in theory at least, it holds human life as more valuable than limitless wealth amassed without regard for how many people are ground to dust in the process. Ayn Rand was wrong. There is a middle ground, and it starts with insuring that people aren’t left to die because they can’t afford to be treated.

And he spake unto them in parables saying, "Verily, a fag, a broad, and an infidel goeth up to the House of the Lord..."

I attended church for the last two Sundays after an absence of several months. Most churches don’t have much in the way of Sunday school during the summer, and since Sunday school is the only reason I go, I hung out with Buddhists instead. All they did was to sit silently, a practice that appeals to me more in theory than in practice. I didn’t go for the meditation though so much as for the people, particularly a man with whom I hoped to be friends. It doesn’t look promising. He suggested that we go for a beer; I proposed a date; the date didn’t work for him; and he never proposed another.

I think he has some mental health issues that are holding him back, but they were what caught my interest. I haven’t had a “normal” friend since childhood. I’m not even sure such people exist…well, I guess they have to because otherwise normal wouldn’t exist, and what kind of sense would that make?

Anyway, church. I went to First Methodist. I hadn’t been there in two years (I’ve been going to First Christian and First Congregationalist—no second rate churches for me), so it surprised hell out of me when one of the ministers said, “Hi, Snow,” before I even put my nametag on.


Yeah, I get one for every church I go to as quickly as possible. Otherwise, a dozen people a Sunday ask such predictably boring questions as, “What brings you here today?” “Have you lived in Eugene long?” “Do I detect the hint of an accent?” If I have a nametag, they still don’t know who I am, but they think they should, so they pretend they do. The preacher today was friendly but didn’t try to engage, and I appreciated that. I’m not going to contribute (much) to his salary; I’m not going to "find" Jesus; and I’m not going to join his church. I’m just there because I enjoy studying the Bible, and will jump ship in a heartbeat if another church offers a more interesting class.

First Methodist recently combined its traditional service with its contemporary service (due to falling membership, I suppose), and Sunday school starts right after it ends. I like to sleep in, so this will work well for me. I will get there early enough to pour myself a cup of coffee and select a good seat in the classroom. Then I will read. About the time I get comfortable, the doors to the sanctuary will open, and the people will file out to the strains of some New Agey hymn or another. Since they are all the same sugary pap, it hardly matters which one.

The only good thing about them is that they inspire pretty women in charismatic churches to sway back and forth while holding their hands above their heads. This elevates their breasts most appealingly, and when you add to that the fact that they’re in their best clothes, moving their lips ecstatically, and wearing expressions of orgasmic bliss…well, I find it inspiring to be sure. If I were a minister in such a church, I would sooner or later conclude my sermon with, “Let us lift our breasts to the Lord in prayer,” and my career would be over. I don’t know whether Methodist women lift their breasts in prayer, but I seriously doubt it.

First Methodist welcomes gay people, and I quickly spotted two gay couples, both of which were somewhat past middle age. One of the gay men asked insightful questions about the Bible, and I was touched by this, although it struck me as ironic since the Bible offers him nothing but stoning and hellfire. But then the preacher who led the class was a woman, and the Bible doesn’t have much good to say about them either. Finally, there was me (or is it I?), a nonbeliever who enjoys the Bible. What a group. But at least the church welcomes women and homosexuals just the way they are, whereas it views people like myself as needing a little work. Okay, a lot of work. But, you know, the Methodists of a hundred years ago would look at the Methodists of today and think they are all hellbound, so change is a’coming. Someday, the church might even live up to its motto:

“Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.”

Friends and families

I just heard a poet on the radio read a loving poem about his dead mother, and I wished I could write a loving poem about my dead mother. When she passed away 23 years ago, I grieved intensely for sixteen months. Every night, she would come in dreams, and we would know such happiness as we had never known in real life. Then I would remember that she was dead, and she would recede into the darkness, leaving me to awaken in tears. After those sixteen months, the anger came and never left. It is still my only connection to her.

Peggy had told me years earlier that my mother treated me badly, but I couldn’t see it. Or rather I could see it, but I had spent so many decades telling myself that she didn’t mean the hurtful things she said, that I couldn’t let myself believe it.

While the poet was on the radio, a caller said that her own mother died in 1971, but that the grief is as fresh as if she had died yesterday. People often say that you should get over your grief in twelve months, but I don’t think it ever ends. It might morph, like mine did, but I hardly feel “over it.” It just takes up less of my time. After my mother died, three months passed during which I never felt a moment of joy. Then I was touring the Duluth, Minnesota, train museum one wintry day when it hit me that several minutes had gone by during which I hadn’t felt sad about losing my mother. The realization taught me that I still had the capacity for joy, and that I could expect to feel it for longer periods.

The good thing about your parents dying is that you don’t have to put up with them anymore. The bad thing is that everything that bothered you about them is frozen in time so that, if you work it out, you work it out alone.

I have a half brother who doesn’t want to know me, and a half sister to whom I am a mostly a penpal. I also have a full sister, but I haven’t spoken to her in the fifteen years since our father died. She abandoned him, so he left her out of his will. She expected me to share his meager estate anyway, but I would have burned it first. The truth of the matter is that we never liked one another, so it isn’t my sister I miss but the idea of having a sister. The same is true of my parents.

My half sister, Anne, envies me because I grew up in a home that had two parents, while she was raised by an uncle who treated her like an object of charity. I meanwhile, envy Anne because she was at least raised by people who didn’t hate one another, and because she had an extended family of other aunts and uncles who loved her and for whom she has fond memories. Oddly, some of my fondest “family” memories are of those very people, yet I was only around them for a week one summer.

I had but one uncle and one aunt of my own. The uncle, I didn’t know, and the aunt and her brother—my father—disliked one another, so her six children consequently disliked me. Things would have been easier had they not been the only other children in my rural neighborhood.

When I was a young man, I imagined that I would create a family from among my friends to supplement my own small and troubled family, but what I found about friends was that when holidays rolled around, they spent them with their blood relatives, leaving Peggy and me alone—unless, of course, she went away to see her own parents and sisters in which case I was really alone. True, my friends might talk about their relatives as if they were the worst people in the world, but when holidays came they went to them, and this made me wonder how close we really were. I also noticed that friends have a way of moving across the country and losing touch.

I turned to dogs for family with some success. The best thing about dogs is that they won’t abandon you. The worst thing is that they’re like perpetual children that need taking care of their whole lives long without ever being able to take care of you. Bonnie and Baxter became significant liabilities after my recent surgeries because they still needed their daily walks and grooming even when it was cold and muddy and my belly had been split open, or I couldn’t put on my coat because my arm was in a sling five inches in front of my body.

Another attempt I made at family was the Masons and the IOOF. There is much to be said for such fraternities, but the people you meet there are no more likely to care about you than are the people you meet anywhere else. My fraternities were founded for the express purpose of serving as extended family, and the members even call one another brother and sister, but it is a mistake to take these things too seriously.

I would feel worse about my inability to maintain close ties with family or friends over the decades if Peggy didn’t have the same problem. I can’t see how it is her fault, and this leads me to think that life is just that way. I’ve known people who I imagined to have a lot of friends, but when I became their friend, I learned that I was wrong or that their friends, like my own, tended to drift away after a few months or years.

Right up through college, friendship came easily. But maybe that was because I didn’t mistrust people back then. Now, I never assume that a relationship will last.

Some news stories keep me awake nights because I understand them; others because I don’t

(May my readers in other countries pardon my use of the word "we." It just seemed too weird to write "the United States" over and over.)

Is it by accident that we are fighting “for freedom” (ours and theirs, presumably) in the oil-rich Middle East while ignoring slavery, starvation, and genocide in the jungles and deserts of Africa? What if those people had oil—or were even white? I mean, we did finally get it together to intervene in Bosnia, yet only thousands died there as opposed to over a million in Rwanda.

Why did conservatives continue to defend the War in Iraq after it became clear that George Bush invaded the wrong country on spurious grounds, yet they are now outraged by Obama’s efforts to insure that everyone has medical care? I could better understand their outrage over the one if they were also outraged over the other. As it is, what is the message here, that killing people by mistake is okay, but saving lives isn’t? Or that anything a conservative president does is acceptable, whereas everything a liberal president tries to do must be defeated?

Conservatives demand to know how Obama plans to pay for health care reform. It is a good question, but why have they never asked this about our two wars in the Middle East, wars that have been going on for seven years at a cost of $915.1 billion?

Residents of conservative states are the poorest and least educated people in America, and they are also the least able to afford medical insurance. Yet they are the very states in which opposition to healthcare reform is strongest. Why is this, do you think?

Pfizer was recently ordered to pay $2.3 billion in fines and penalties for fraudulent advertising. It was Pfizer’s fourth conviction in seven years, yet no one will go to prison, and the fine only represents three weeks of corporate profits. Every major pharmaceutical company has run into similar problems, but since the profits exceed the fines, they keep at it.

Ronald McDonald runs charitable residence houses near hospitals for the families of seriously ill children, yet Ronald doesn’t insure his own rank and file workers—or their children. This enables him to look like a philanthropist even while dumping sick children on the taxpayer’s doorstep.

The Supreme Court is expected to abolish corporate spending limits for political ads before the end of the year. Imagine how it would affect the current healthcare debate if those in favor of reform had to compete with the likes of Merck and WellPoint for attention. Through their lobbyists and political contributions, such firms already exert an undue influence on legislators. When the day comes that they persuade legislators to outlaw free speech on the Internet (to protect us from terrorists, no doubt) their control of information will be complete.

Another fairly recent Supreme Court decision that dispossessed the individual in favor of the corporation was allowing local municipalities to take away the homes and businesses of individuals and give them to corporations. A third was ruling that corporations have the same free speech rights as individual citizens.

The irony of such decisions is that the raison d'être of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution, a document that was supposedly created to protect the rights of the individual.

Yet another example of our government working overtime to screw the individual is that lawmakers denied Medicare and Medicaid the right to negotiate drug costs as do private insurers. Drug companies were said to be exceedingly grateful.

Such things go almost un-noticed by the press, as if to imply that they’re not relevant to our lives. So, Michael Jackson’s death is relevant?

The problem is that the press provides us with the information we want rather than the information we need. For example, thousands of people—including 191 Americans—have been killed in Afghanistan since January, yet Michael Jackson’s death in June has gotten more press coverage this year than that entire country. Given our apathy toward the things that matter to our welfare, the question becomes one of what we, as a country, deserve.

When a person joins the military, it would be well to tell him or her that, oh, by the way, if you should die for your country, your country won’t even notice, and absolutely nothing good will come from your sacrifice. In fact, the war in which you die will probably just fizzle out eventually, and, like the war in Vietnam, be judged by historians as a waste of time and resources.

No one doubts the mass corruption of the governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the only reason for protecting them is that they’re on our side whereas their enemies are not on our side. It was the same with the Shah in Iran, Batista in Cuba, and the Contras in Nicaragua. I don’t remember a time when my government didn’t support evil regimes—even when those regimes overthrew elected governments—as long as we thought they wouldn’t turn on us.

Did you know that private charities hold fundraisers to pay for plastic surgery on disfigured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan? If the government doesn’t care about the “heroes” who were supposedly injured while “fighting for our freedom,” why should we think it cares about us?

Conservatives say that we should support the troops even if we despise the war. The problem is that troops make wars possible. If those who will join the military today took the trouble to become informed beforehand, they probably wouldn’t join. The most that can be said for them is that they’re awfully young, terribly na├»ve, and woefully ignorant.

The thing that I find most distressing about my country is its smugness. Even though we are the most obese, the least fit, and one of the most debt ridden nations on earth, and even though our scores continue to drop in regard to education, longevity, vacation time, infant mortality, and other lifestyle standards; we still congratulate ourselves on being “the greatest nation on earth.” Greatest how? That’s what I would like to know.

Three things

First Thing

I saw an abandoned rubber tree by a curb a few days ago. It was big, ungainly, and in a broken plastic pot. I didn’t want it, but I was touched by how tenaciously it clung to life, so yesterday I biked back to see if it was still there. It was still there all right, still on its side. As I stood looking at it, I thought, what the hell, I’ll just bike it home. Having to hold so much weight in one hand was a problem, but wind resistance was an even bigger problem.

I live in an area in which large loads are often seen on bikes, but never have I seen anyone with a rubber tree. No one else I passed had either, I suppose. First their mouths would drop open, and then they would laugh. There IS something funny about a rubber tree, even when it’s not being taken for a bike ride. “Oops, there goes another rubber tree.”

Second Thing

I went on a raw food diet six days ago. I ate mostly raw foods for years in the ‘90s, but I eventually got bored and went back to a regular diet. Now that I am in pain all the time and looking at multiple surgeries in addition to the four I’ve had in the past 18-months, I decided to go back to raw foods for a month and see if I can tell any difference.

It’s hard to eat enough raw food to keep weight on, so I’ve dropped from 169 to 163. I also feel positively stoned. It’s like looking at reality from a different and more interesting angle. I used to feel the same way when I fasted. Fasting brought me in touch with an inner purity that made it hard to eat again.

Raw foods aren’t exactly effervescent, but they do sparkle in my mouth.

Third Thing

Yesterday, I went to see Mark, my orthodpedic surgeon, for my six-week appointment. I’m 5 1/2 months out from surgery on my right shoulder, but still in pain. Here’s part of what I wrote to him by way of an update.

The pain is such that I can no longer exercise even with three pound dumbbells.

The pain is appreciable at night and mild during the day (most days the joint just feels a little stiff; other days, it hurts all day). The pain becomes worse the longer I am in bed.

The left shoulder also keeps me awake at times, especially if I’ve been active. My middle and upper back also hurt a great deal. I bought a Temper-Pedic type mattress, and that seemed to help for a couple of months, but now the back pain is worse than ever and bothers me no matter what position I am in. I anticipate a move back to the recliner if it gets worse.

I need two prescriptions. One for Percocet [oxycodone and acetaminophen] and one for Restoril [a sleeping pill]. I take two to three Percocets most nights, and I change ice packs every 1 1/2 to 4 hours. I also take Benadryl for the itching caused by the Percocet, but it still interferes with my sleep. Since acetaminophen now appears to be a greater health risk than formerly believed, I would prefer straight-up oxycodone.

Both the Percocet and the Restoril have the added benefit of helping me to avoid going into a funk when I wake up in the middle of the night and brood about my shoulder problems.

He blamed arthritis for the continuing pain in my right shoulder, injected it with cortisone and lidocaine, and said I will need a joint replacement within anywhere from a few months to a few years. I said I still wanted to have surgery on the left shoulder this year, and he said that would be fine if we can get rid of the pain in the right one—otherwise, he’ll operate on it instead.

Mark seemed to be leaning toward a full-joint replacement because the partials have a 20% chance of failure within two years. He said he wouldn’t consider a full replacement as a first option if I was twenty years younger. I told him not to consider it now either.

Mark has a new baby and said he was sleepy. I hope he’s getting better rest before my next surgery. Peggy said not to worry because medical people—she’s a nurse—are used to rising to the occasion no matter how they feel. I found little comfort in this, partly because mine will be a complex surgery. The bottom-line though is that I trust Mark. I don’t care how dire a situation is, if you trust your doctor, it makes it seem about half as bad. If you don’t trust your doctor, you’re screwed, especially if your doctor pool is limited.

The way I see it

When Sarah Palin spoke of her affinity for the “Joe Six-packs of America,” I envisioned the millions of people who believe that an opinion expressed by besotted barflies has a better chance of validity than one presented in a doctoral thesis. Their premise is that anything beyond rudimentary knowledge overcomplicates decision-making, and that the resultant loss of clarity leads to liberalism. I heard it presented in church from the time I was in diapers. “Better to be poor all you life than go to a secular university, read the godless filth that godless professors call literature, study their godless science and their godless philosophy; and lose your soul.”

Led by conservative talk show hosts, the Joe Six-Packs are on the ascendancy. Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Medved, Lars Larson, and Michael Savage, are well known to me because I used to listen to them for hours each day. I quit because, despite their appeal (commercial talk radio is based on personality; public talk radio on issues) and their entertaining theatrics, there was no attempt at fairness. Their tactic was to trash the enemy, no matter how blatant the illogic or skewed the facts. If you believe your listeners are morons, there’s no need to make sense; and the fact that such talk show hosts are immensely popular implies that their assessment of their audience is largely correct. NPR at least tries to represent all sides, giving them time to answer questions, and prohibiting them from talking over one another.

Yesterday, I heard the leader of the Christian Coalition, and, as with a great many conservatives nowadays, I felt embarrassed for him. If there is any intelligence or integrity on the part of the most vocal segment of the right, I’m unaware of it. They seem to believe that democracy is great as long as they win, but if they don’t win, all bets are off. Then it’s time to “take back America,” and this would appear to leave room for pretty much anything—except working for the common good. Other than hysteria, I don’t know what the right has going for it. Unfortunately, hysteria seems to be serving it well, and that is a hard lesson to swallow.

After I wrote the above, I visited a blog in which the owner was bemoaning the lack of compassion on the part of those who oppose health care reform. One reader wrote that she was among them, whereupon there was unleashed against her the most vituperative torrent of abuse I have ever seen on any blog. Another reader and I spoke against it, thinking that, surely, others would join us. They did not. In fact, they joined in the name-calling, ending any possibility of a rational discussion. Even though the dissenter gave up after being called a parrot and a hate-filled bitch, one reader complimented the forum on its openness to opposing viewpoints—after all, no one had been physically beaten.

Experience has taught me that it is a rare day when either side to a debate has a monopoly on righteousness, yet how much sadder is that lesson when the worse cruelty is inflicted by those who claim to be on the side of compassion? Islam calls itself a religion of peace, yet how many people will be murdered today amid screams of Allahu Akbar? The second tenet of Christianity is to love your neighbor as yourself, yet how many millions of their neighbors have Christians killed, tortured, or ostracized? So would it be, I fear, with “compassionate liberals” if they had the power. The worst atrocities are always inflicted by those who think their side represents everything good and the other side everything evil.

Where my species is concerned; no enlightenment is possible, and no lasting good can ever come. For every gain there is a loss, and we extol the Gandhis and the Kings loudest when they are dead and can no longer threaten our smugness. Our lives are so very, very short that I should think we could do better. Perhaps, we are still too evolutionarily primitive. Perhaps, the truly compassionate are but aberrations. I cannot think it otherwise, and I despair.

What happens to a fantasy come true?

At night. Late. Quiet. Alone. In bed. I ponder the daylight world of color, shadow, music, plants, people. They don’t seem real in the darkness. They seem like a drug trip. I think, “Maybe this is what death is like; awareness without stimuli, as if the world were a long ago dream.”

Lately, as I lie in the darkness, I ponder Marit Larsen. I want to be Marit Larsen when I grow up.


Because she’s young, rich, healthy, intelligent, talented, beautiful, famous... Okay, I’m intelligent too, and I’m talented too (not widely appreciated for it, but talented nonetheless). But I’m also soooo old; I don’t know what my first sixty years were about, and I don’t know what to do with my last twenty. If I were Marti Larsen, life would be soooo good. Or not. I’ll admit it; I don’t know her; I just know about her.

I saw Edie Adams in an old movie last week, only I couldn’t remember her name. I just knew that I knew her. Turned out she was the woman who did the Muriel Cigar commercials in the ‘60s. Women don’t come any prettier. Then, she got old and not so pretty. No, not so pretty at all. Grace Slick was the same way. I feel cheated when women do that. Women create life—right? So what the hell are they doing getting old and dying? I expected better from them.

I worshipped them (the pretty ones anyway) from my earliest memories. It could even be that my earliest memory is of a woman who visited my family, and with whom I wanted to sleep so I could absorb her magic. I wasn’t allowed, and I screamed in protest. There it was, infinite joy right in front of me, and I couldn’t have it. I didn’t know about sex, but I knew that the universe could be mine if only I could press my body against hers in the lonely darkness.

Now, Peggy won’t sleep with me (I snore, I kick), but Peggy can’t give me eternal bliss anyway, so I can live with it. The only women who have that power are the ones who exist solely in my imagination—even though they’re based on real people. Nothing kills a good fantasy like having it come true.

I continue thinking as I lie in the darkness: Okay, if I could be Marit Larsen, what would that look like? Well, I couldn’t just be me in her body; I would have to be her, and this means that EVERYTHING that is, was, or ever will be me would be destroyed. Would I still do it? No. I wouldn’t. I say to myself:

“She too will die. I know that. I look at her, so young, so full of life; but, no matter, she will grow old, and she will die, and then she will be no more. Odds are, it will happen forty years after my death, but what is forty years in the scheme of things?”

Still, she looks like a goddess. I know better, but the little boy in me can never completely give up the old fantasies. Reality is simply too hard to look full in the face. Yet, in the wee hours, I DO look reality full in the face, if only because I can’t turn away. I hate the wee hours.

The thing that is both sad and grand is that I have at least rationally given up on magic. Women can make me feel damn good, but they can’t save me; they can only distract me. Why is such knowledge grand? Because to look to women for salvation was a heavy burden to lay upon human flesh. Men sometimes kill when their goddesses fail them.

When I was young, and I knew guys that were old and rich, I envied them because I knew they could get women that I couldn’t. Now that I’m old (and not really rich, but not poor either), I too could get women that I couldn’t have gotten on charm alone when I was young; but I don’t want them. Funny that I ever thought I would.

Now, even if I could get them on charm alone, I wouldn’t know what to do once I had them. I could fuck them, for a while longer anyway, but what would we talk about? Funny I should keep coming back to that. Peggy and I can talk about 38 years of shared experiences, or we can talk about the years that we didn’t share but that we did both experience. Marit Larsen is a 26-year-old Norwegian.

Me: “So, Marit, did you ever see that mermaid statue thingy in Oslo?”
Her: “Herregud!!! What is it with Americans and geography? The Little Mermaid is in Copenhagen. Me and my Mom saw it a long, long time ago, like in the 90’s.”
Me: “I first saw it in a book in the 50’s.”
Her: “Wow! My parents weren’t even born yet.”
Me: “Hey, I’ve got some DVDs of Have Gun Will Travel. Do you want to watch them?”
Her: “What kind of music do they play?”

Whatever shot I might have ever had at Marit Larson is gone. Watch her video. Try to see her as I see her. She looks angelic, but she’s not an angel. I know that, really I do.

P.S. For best results, double click on the video to watch it on the YouTube site.