Some people scrounge; others just collect

Yesterday was a good day for a scrounger. First, I ate a piece of toast that someone had left in a restaurant (I dunked it in my coffee); then I found a pair of perfectly good socks under a park bench (socks were actually on my shopping list); and lastly I spotted some votive candle holders on a curb (I’ll use them for shot glasses).

“People who have class don’t scrounge,” Peggy objected.

“Ha!” I said. “In my family, they did. In my family, the ones without class went straight to the dump.” THAT’S low class. Finding stuff around town is serendipitous. (I don’t really think it’s low class to get stuff from the dump—I think it’s damn efficient—but I was trying to impress Peggy.)

“Hey, you didn’t tell me the light changed!” Peggy yelled as a car barreled past. She was prying a penny from the asphalt as we spoke, and I was standing on the curb where I was supposedly warning her of oncoming traffic.

“Shit, Peggy, don’t you go hollering at me. It’s not like you got run over or something!”

This reminds me of a funny story about Peggy—after 38 years together, I could tell you A LOT of funny stories about Peggy.

Peggy abruptly stopped her bike one day when she saw a penny in the bike lane. The biker who rear-ended her was pretty upset, so Peggy lied about why she stopped. Another time, Peggy was going somewhere with Shirley when she saw a penny at a gas station. She had Shirley drive round and round through the pumps until she saw it again. Naturally, the station’s bell kept going off, which, for some reason, seemed to piss off the man whose job it was to answer it.

Peggy isn’t a scrounger though; Peggy is a collector. A collector only picks up things that aren’t good for much, things like beads, pennies, matchbox trucks, and squished rings from Cracker Jacks’ boxes. A scrounger picks up things he can actually use. I especially like baseball caps because I wear one almost every waking moment. Peggy worries that I’ll get head lice—and give them to her—but the risk seems worth it.

I think that what is really low class is waste. I would even say that waste is worse than low class. I would say that waste is a sin. I went to a talk about mysticism at Unity Church last week, and the leader gave out ten-page single-sided handouts. I was horrified. Not only does double-sided printing save resources; it saves filing space in the event that anyone wants to keep the handouts. I was also horrified because Unity claims to teach a better way to live. Well, duh.

Another time, I was in a writing group when a woman read an essay in which she trashed loggers. She gave everyone single-sided copies of her essay. What was she thinking—besides how superior she felt to all those damn loggers?

My Dad was a scrounger, only it got out of hand when he was old. He would bring home things like broken baby cribs, things that took up a lot of room and didn’t even have parts that could be used in other things. When I moved him from Mississippi to Oregon in 1992, I spent weeks getting rid of it all. Everyday, I would take one truckload to the dump, one truckload to the junkyard, and set aside another truckload to sell. What upset me most were the scores of worthless (to him anyway) magazines that he had paid money for, magazines like Mademoiselle and Working Mother. He thought they would give him a better chance to win the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. When Ed Mahon—Johnny Carson’s sidekick who advertised for Publishers Clearinghouse—died last month, my only thought was that I hope there really is a hell, and that Ed Mahon is in it.

To waste means to hold in contempt. The problem is that we all do it. I live in a 1,250 square foot house that has a double garage and sets on a fair-sized lot. All of the houses in my neighborhood are about the same size, and most were occupied by families of three to six people when they were built in the 1950s. Now, most of them contain widows or divorced people. I’ve asked several people who raised their families in my neighborhood if the houses seemed small back then. They all seemed surprised by my question, yet today, anything less than four bedrooms and two baths would seem small.

There really is no end to how much we want, because as soon as we get one thing, most of us start thinking about how nice it would be to have something else. I think 1,250 square feet is too big for a couple, but Peggy disagrees. Ten years ago, I talked her into at least looking for something smaller, but everything that was smaller was in a rundown neighborhood. People who couldn’t afford big houses apparently felt too discouraged to take care of the houses they could afford. Yet, when you think about it, the smaller the house, the easier the maintenance.

I think that, as a culture, we’re going to remain wasteful until something from outside stops us. Here’s why I think that way. Take the average overweight and under-exercised person. If that person develops serious health problems that can only be cured by weight loss and exercise, he or she is probably screwed. Now, extend the unwillingness of the individual to deal with problems that imminently threaten his existence to those problems that will threaten society as a whole a generation from now, and tell me what the odds are of voluntary change.

I have a friend who says that the problem isn’t waste per se, but the ever-growing number of people who are doing it. In his view, this excuses him from changing how he lives. I would consider waste to be an act of contempt if I was the only person on earth, but he’s probably right in a purely practical sense. Yet, I think we’re obliged to do what we can to better the situation we are in rather than to simply bemoan the fact that a better situation doesn’t exist.

There used to be a story that circulated the Internet about a little boy who was throwing stranded starfish back into the water (I don’t remember how they got out of the water—maybe a hurricane). A wizened old man came along and pointed out that, given the thousands of starfish that were stranded, the little boy wasn’t making a big difference.

“I guess I made a big difference to that one,” the kid said as he threw yet another one into the water.”

That’s the way I see it. I didn’t scrounge a pair of socks or a set of shot glasses. I respected them by rescuing them from the garbage. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and I treasure such finds far more than anything I could buy.

What do I care?

A woman was sobbing loudly and screaming at invisible people in front of the library today. I had been out all morning and was looking forward to getting home and eating peanut butter with homemade Parmesan crackers, so I walked on by. When I reached my bike, I looked back and saw that the only other person in the area was an adolescent boy who was beating a hasty retreat.

“Damn, I’m stuck,” I muttered. “Any other minute of any other day, and there would be a hundred drunks, druggies, pimps, whores, punks, Goths, hippies, skinheads, panhandlers, and homeless people standing around with their sleeping bags and pit-bulls admiring one another’s tattoos and nose-rings.”

“I’m having a panic attack,” she said when I asked how I might help. This didn’t fit with what I had witnessed, but I still felt relieved that she might not be out and out psychotic. She calmed down remarkably fast, so fast that I wondered if her hysteria hadn’t been a ploy to get my attention.

She sat on the edge of a concrete planter, and I sat beside her while she told me her sad story. To wit: her “boyfriend” neglected to tell her that he has AIDS, but she loves him anyway although he lost all interest in her after they had sex. Her “partner” doesn’t know about the affair, and she doesn’t plan to tell him because he would beat her up.

“Lady, you are just too stupid for words,” I thought. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to leave, at least not yet. I had decided to help, and, by god, I was going to do it—for five more minutes anyway.

She said she had walked for miles hoping to work the virus out of her system before it put down roots. She asked if drinking a lot of water might wash it out. I said I doubted it, and I then made an unforgivably practical suggestion about going to White Bird Clinic to be tested, and I tried to console her with the thought that she might not have AIDS anyway, but even if she does, people nowadays live for years with the virus.

When I finally got up to go, she thanked me sarcastically “for making fun of a serious situation.” I hadn’t done this, so I figured she was just trying to provoke me into staying, but I honestly didn’t care. The fact is that I never cared. I had done my duty as I saw it, but my heart was at home eating peanut butter on homemade Parmesan crackers.

Maybe you would have cared. Maybe you would have listened without passing judgment, but I can’t imagine how. I really can’t. The only way I can feel warm and fuzzy toward my fellow human beings is to not be around them very much. Still, if you would have cared, I hope it’s you who stops to help on the day that it’s me standing in front of the library screaming at invisible people. Not that I am given to such theatrics. No, not me. I realized when I was a little boy with a screaming sister that screamers get all the attention but none of the respect, and I came to hate them on both counts.

Chronic pain: is it for you?

Here’s how I see chronic pain. Let’s say you take it into you head to help the poorest people on earth, and you are sent to a city dump in Cairo or Mexico City. An hour after you fold the seat-table on the 747, you are standing amid Third World filth, smelling the overpowering stench and looking at the emaciated children with maggot-filled sores, and you think, “My God, I can’t take this.” But you discover that you are stronger than you thought and, after a few months, you get used to it. You still hate it, but you get used to it.

Today, I went to see Shan, my number one physical therapist (I see three in all). If I don’t have less pain in the next two weeks, Mark will want to do a joint replacement on the same shoulder that he did the decompression and tendon repair on in March, so Shan suggested a drastic approach. His “drastic approach” was to stick needles deep into my muscles and tendons. This made them twitch so violently that I bent some of the needles. Every time I thought that he surely must be finished, he would have me change positions and stick me some more. Sweat poured off me, yet the pain still wasn’t as bad as much of what I experience everyday. I tried to carry on a normal conversation. “You handle this better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” he said, and I took it as a better than average compliment. Afterwards, I was sore but a lot more limber.

I realized some time ago that if I want medical people to take my pain seriously, I have to hang tough when they hurt me. As an ob-gyn nurse, Peggy often gets patients in early labor who claim that their pain level is a ten on a scale of one to ten. Peggy will say, “Ms Babymaker, you need to pick a lower number because you’re not leaving anything for later.” I always try to leave something for later. Not that I would act any differently otherwise; I’m too macho for that. Sometimes, macho is good. Of course, emoting is good too. It’s just a question of when. I cry easily (real easily) when I’m touched or grieving, but never when I’m hurt or angry. That’s just how I am, and I like it.

The last time I cried because I was hurt or angry, I was in the fifth grade, and got into a fight with a former friend, Jack White, after school. Jack brought three other friends to the fight, and when they saw that I was winning, they penned my arms so Jack could beat me up. Only he never threw the first punch because I began sobbing at the recognition of such treachery as I had never thought possible. Aghast, they let me up without a word spoken, and I walked home still sobbing. My best friend, Grady Green, was sitting on the porch, and he consoled me. I’ll never forget that, although I don’t even remember what he said. For all I know, he didn’t say anything. That afternoon contained one of life’s saddest moments followed by one of its sweetest. I wish I had a male friend like Grady today. But I digress.

I was dizzy when I left Shan, and that wasn’t good since I was on my bike and a half hour from home with a lengthy errand to do en route. I knew it would be better to skip the errand and go ice my shoulder, but macho kicked-in again. When I finally got home, I iced my shoulder for ten minutes and then ran another errand, followed by more ice, and finally a third errand. If not for ice, I don’t know how I could bear the pain. I try to limit narcotics to the nighttime, yet I still have to get up every two hours for a new ice pack. Demerol, Vicodin, Percocet, Norco, Dilaudid; none of them are sufficient without ice. It’s quite the experience to be passed out on narcotics and sleeping pills, only to be instantly awakened by a pain that comes screaming through the darkness like an arrow out of nowhere. Fortunately, I can usually get by on either the one or the other as long as I supplement it with ice.

A lot depends on how bad the pain is, and that varies, but I would say that what annoys me worse than hurting all the time is not being able to do so many things. Even small things like running the vacuum cleaner. I’m still hoping that I’ll be back to normal in about a year, but if I have to have my right shoulder operated on again (before I have the left one done), it will be closer to two years, and there’s even the possibility that the left shoulder will require two surgeries too since it and the right one look like mirror images on an MRI.

I wish I could have avoided all this, but it hasn’t been a total loss, although I can’t think of much good to say about it either. Really, the only thing that comes to mind is that it has shown me that I’m tougher than I thought—and more adept at suffering. I might hope that it has also made me more compassionate, and maybe it has.

Despite my toughness, I think about death, a lot. It all comes down to how much pain and disability a person is willing to tolerate. I’m not near my limit because I still have hope, and I also have Peggy to consider. Death does seem like an easy way out though. I think that, well, what if I lose hope that things will ever get any better? What if I come to believe that I will always need someone to mow my fucking yard and vacuum my fucking floor, and what if I conclude that I will never pass another day without significant pain? That would be a hard row to hoe, but I could do it. I just hope I won’t have to.

I roofed a dentist office in the early ‘80s alongside Jack Tindall, the sixty-year-old man who owned it. Out of the blue one day, Jack turned to me and said, “You’re a master, and I’m a past-master.” I thought it was a strange thing to say because he was a rich man, and he didn’t have to be on that roof if he didn’t want to. Now, it’s Jack’s turn to be dead, and my turn to be a past-master, and the fact that I have the money to pay someone to mow my yard and vacuum my floor isn’t enough to compensate. Money seemed more magical when I was young and strong. Now it’s mostly good for paying medical bills. That still makes it my best friend, because without it I would be left to suffer and die like so millions of others in “the greatest nation on earth.”

If all I had to look forward to was a continual downhill slide, health-wise, I wouldn’t want to live that way, and if I didn’t have Peggy, I don’t know that I would. Some days, it’s hard to see the point, and my fantasies turn toward how I might escape. I’m only sixty though, and I do have hope for a better tomorrow, if not next year, maybe the next.