The world as surreality

I marvel at the perfection of this photograph. Was its juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images casual or planned, irrational or brilliant, and what was going on inside the head of the cat? I gave up marijuana because it had come to make my world so weird that I would get lost in my mind, yet I find myself seeking out marijuana-like experiences that cause me to get lost in my mind, experiences that are more intimidating than marijuana because they take me so far adrift that I can never quite return to where I started.

Few people would be strongly affected by this photograph. Cat-lovers would smile and find it relaxing, while cat-haters would become so fixated on the object of their hatred that they would be blind to everything else. I find it as deep, mysterious, and frightening as a glimpse into the far side of the universe. It leaves my stomach weightless, and it saddens me more than the photo of that naked Vietnamese girl, the execution of that Vietcong man, or the planes crashing into the twin towers. While they merely speak of the cruelty, shallowness, stupidity, terror, and misery of my species, this photograph juxtaposes mortality and infinitude, contentment and isolation, beauty and meaninglessness, perfection and casualness, mundanity and ethereality, superficiality and depth. It pronounces life as the purpose of life.

...I’ll let you in on a secret. I have often felt both inferior and superior to everyone around me, but with the passing years (but especially since I broke my back on November 30), I have come to compare myself to others less, my more recent feeling being that I have simply moved to a distant realm, and am therefore limited in my ability to relate to them, or them to me.

My goal with hallucinogenics was to feel as I do now, but having achieved that goal in the absence of drugs, I miss normalcy, and I worry that I might eventually travel so far that I'll be permanently alone in the universe. Indeed, I am already alone—just as we all are—but it’s one thing to be a certain way and pretend you're not, and another to be unable to forget that you're that way. I see others as through the wrong end of a telescope. Inside my head, worlds collide, and I am in wonder that no one hears them. I have no ground on which to stand and no voice to guide me. Maybe this is wisdom, or what some call God, or borderline insanity. I just know that it is interesting but not fun, and that it seems far from safe. Rather, it is reminiscent of the insights that one might expect just before death when the things that one spent a lifetime fretting over have ceased to matter. Ironically, I conduct myself much as before because I live a contradiction between what I know of the groundlessness of reality versus the only methods I know—or used to think I knew—to achieve security (possessions, orderliness, leisure, intimacy, projects, exercise, time outdoors), and I so crave security that I would do anything to possess it, even sacrificing my integrity if such a thing were possible. Unfortunately, perhaps, I possess an integrity beyond choice, an integrity for which I can no credit and that, like everything else about me, will soon be extinguished.

“…Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now...” Philip Larkin

People generally think that being high means being happy, but being high simply means being altered, and this means that taking drugs often represents an attempt, not to get high, but to escape being high. Sedatives, for example. Narcotics, for example. Tranquilizers, for example. Alcohol, for example.

I saw my internist last week and, at my request, he prescribed Cymbalta. I’ve had it before, but I don’t think I was on it for long, and I’m not even sure I worked up to a full dose. Until a few months ago, when it went generic, Cymbalta was expensive. Even now, it will cost me $205 a month ($42 after my $360 yearly deductible), which isn’t a lot—as drugs go—but it is one more expense added to many such expenses (I just paid $1,400 for an adjustable bed), so I debated long and hard whether to ask for it. If it works, it will even me out while at the same time reducing my pain. Pain alone can made a person crazy, and I’m tired of being crazy. I want the insights that come with pain and the proximity of death, but I need respite from the weirdness, yet I worry that the drug will numb me because that’s what such drugs have done in the past. They build a floor that keeps me from the pit, but they also impose a ceiling that shuts out the stars. I regard Cymbalta as my last resort because no other drug has so great a potential to alter both pain and mood, and because I don’t know what else to do, having tried many things over many years.

I read a book about Sigmund Freud recently, and the author made what to me was the strangest comment. He said that Freud was so troubled that he reflected upon death everyday, to which I thought, Only everyday?

“Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…” Larkin

“I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless. Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness. Where death thy sting; where grave thy victory?” Henry Francis Lyte

“No trick dispels. Religion used to try…” Larkin

“Boris: “Nothingness. Non-existence. Black emptiness.’
“Sonia: ‘What did you say?’
“Boris: ‘I was just planning my future.’” Woody Allen

To be preoccupied with death is very different from being preoccupied with work, bills, and family, because the others admit of resolution. Death is resolution, but it is resolution by annihilation, and annihilation itself can never be resolved. I don't, therefore, see death as resolution but as of the end of any possibility of resolution.

My diminishing number of posts is not due to unwillingness to share but to an absence of words and confidence. If the gulf between myself and others is such that I can’t make myself understood about things that I once felt sure I could express, how can I make myself understood about things that I’m sure I can’t express, and in which, to put it bluntly, I don’t think there’s much interest anyway. 

I saw all I could stand of House on Haunted Hill last night, shocked that such a boring and silly movie could have had such an overwhelming and lasting impact on me in 1958 (unless I was an entirely different person then, and I don’t think I was). I interpreted my opposing perceptions to suggest that an equal amount of change might still be possible for me in a mere 75 minutes. Then I remembered that 75 minutes is an enormous amount of time, it having only taken a second for me to fall out of that tree on November 30, and even that was a veritable eternity given that more change can come into a person's life in a millisecond than in the rest of life combined.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

This is the kind of statement that leaves atheists cold, but due to my need for security (taking such a view would permit me to overlay my humanity with a superior persona that would allow me to transcend a portion of the pain), and my desire to be fair to people whose beliefs differ from my own, I tried to discover how Chardin defined spiritual being so that I could make sense of his statement, but so far as I know, he never defined it. I angrily wondered if he had knowingly devoted his life to promulgating an undefined concept, and this left me to suspect that his statement was nothing more than rhetorical pablum, by which I mean an utterance that could only be considered deep and comforting by the shallow; sort of a counterexample of the profundity with which House on Haunted Hill impressed me when I was nine.

As I continued to ponder what he might have meant, it came to me in the wee hours that spirit is consciousness in the absence of matter. This is surely obvious, but since I had never put it into words, I was pleased with my 3:00 a.m. perceptiveness until it struck me that such a definition is no better than defining a unicorn as a flying horse with a horn on its head. To envision what something is, doesn’t suggest that it is, although, to be strictly honest, many things—everything, really—exists without me having a clue as to what it is, how it came to be, or even how it can be; I only know how things appear to me, and I am losing even that. To live with awe and wonder is entertaining, but to live with nothing but awe and wonder has removed the earth from beneath my feet and left me nauseous and floating.

“And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things..., this [chestnut] root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness… All these objects . . . how can I explain? They inconvenienced me; I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more dryly, in a more abstract way, with more reserve.” Sartre

Thus did Sartre define what it means to me to be really high. It is not a good place to get stuck, but I am stuck, and the proximity of death makes it impossible for me to come down.

“…existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it.” Sartre

This illustration of Shiva describes my visceral sense much of the time. I debated sharing it because I recognize it for what it is, a visual trick, a manipulation (as its title, Shiva Optical Illusion, suggests), and therefore a dishonesty and a seemingly adolescent dishonesty at that. Yet, I include it because, like the first photograph, it conveys with imagery what I can't say with words, and because I suspect that all art--and literature--represents an effort at manipulation. Indeed, most of what we do amounts to the manipulation of ourselves, of others, or of both, and those who least succeed at this are likewise the least happy, the least successful, and the least long-lived. Too much honesty (more than is practical) is an evolutionary dead-end . 

As with the photo at top, I am sad to say that I can't credit the creator of "Shiva Optical Illusion." I only know that he calls himself Vishnu108, that he's a Hare Krishna, and that his work can be found at

Memories and regrets

Paul Tirmenstein and John Marthaler
in 1984, two years to the month
before Pauls' death

A lot of high-rise apartments (if you can call five stories a high-rise) are going up downtown, and as I walked past some of them today, I looked to see if the barber shop that Oscar went to was still there. It was, the whole thing containing no more than 200 square feet and looking out of place among all those apartments, but still standing and still in business. Oscar was in his eighties when we met but was still attractive in a benevolent, dignified, and intelligent-looking sort of way, especially when he wore a three-piece suit, which he usually did (I never saw Oscar but what he was dressed-up).

The day I took him to the barbershop, he said that his doctor had told him that he had a heart problem which would kill him without surgery, but that he was too old to survive the surgery. Oscar said this with a look of horror that made it clear that he wasn’t taking the news at all well. I had seen a lot of death by then—I was nearly 50 and had often worked around the dying as well as the dead—but I didn’t get it like I do now that the actuarial tables are predicting my own demise in a mere 16 years—which is about how long ago Oscar died, yet it seems like Oscar died just a little while ago. At the time I knew Oscar, I realized that anyone except for myself could die at any time, and I rather assumed that if a person was old when the time came, he wouldn’t mind it so much. Oscar clearly minded it, and I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. He died about a month later, and I still feel badly that I didn’t at least have enough brains to encourage him to talk about his feelings. I also wonder how a Christian could have been so afraid of death unless he didn’t really believe.

Thinking of Oscar made me think of Paul, maybe because he was Oscar’s age when he died, and because I had also talked with him about his death without being as supportive as I would have liked. Paul wasn’t much like Oscar except that he often wore a suit, although the only suit he owned had been crap when he bought it and hadn’t improved over the decades, plus Paul was the kind of old man who, every time he eats, ends up with crumbs on his face. It didn’t help his appearance any that he also had piercings in more places than I cared to look, this in rural Mississippi during the early 80s when the only piercings were in women’s ears, and then no more than one per ear. On the plus side, Paul was smart, thoughtful, and well-spoken. He collected Japanese fans, painted beautifully, made jewelry, had been a refrigeration engineer, and singlehandedly built the house in which he, his wife, and his daughter had lived (his wife being dead and his daughter living in another town when I knew him).

Other than myself, I only knew two atheists in the entire state of Mississippi, and they were a long way from my house, but I still saw them a few times a year. Paul was one, and John was the other, and since part of my name is Thomas, I called us the three apostles, much to their delight. Each of the other two was as eccentric as a village atheist is supposed to be and then some. For instance, they both had ten or more (far more in John’s case) atheistic bumper stickers on their cars. Also, John must have weighed 400 pounds (I know he doesn't look it in the picture), and this made his old Corolla lean heavily toward the drivers side. He wrote one or more letters to newspapers everyday, and carried them around to show people. Along with his piercings, Paul had a poster on an inside wall that was four feet from, and facing, his front door. It depicted Michelangelo’s god raping Uncle Sam under the caption, “One Nation Under God.”  Since no one could meet Paul (or John either for that matter) without being struck by how polite and soft-spoken he was, I finally asked him why he had that obnoxious poster and all those bumper stickers, and he just told me that some things needed to be said.

Because he knew I smoked pot, Paul phoned one day and said that he wanted to commit suicide because he couldn’t take care of himself much longer, and could I get him some drugs to do it with. Getting busted for drugs in Mississippi back then was no joke because even a couple of joints could land a person in Parchman Penitentiary for years. Still, I would have tried to have gotten them if he hadn’t called me on the phone, but I was just paranoid enough to think that the DEA might be listening in, so I said no. What I did do was to invite him to come live with Peggy and me. I meant it, and I had no doubt but what Peggy would have welcomed him, because that’s just how Peggy is. He turned me down because he didn’t consider a dependent life to be a life worth living, and because he wanted his money to go to American Atheists rather than to “be wasted keeping an old man alive.” A few months later, Paul was busy running a hose from his car exhaust into his car when a neighbor saw him, and called the cops. The cops took him to jail and called his daughter. His daughter, who was a born-again Christian, got him released and stayed with him for awhile. The day she left, he got in his car and killed himself. I admired him for that and for donating his body to the Ole Miss Medical School. If nothing else kills me first, I too will die a suicide. I’m afraid of death, and I hope to live for years yet, but, like Paul, I’m not willing to live at any cost and in any amount of misery.

I guess it must have been 20 or 30 years ago that I read in the newspaper about an elderly couple who lived in Florida. The wife being hopelessly sick, they got their affairs in order—including making their bed and washing their dishes—after which they wrote suicide notes, and then drove to a rural area where the man shot her and then himself. I think it’s a poor excuse for a country in which people who are old and sick and ready to die have to do that kind of thing, and I admire the hell out that couple, the man especially, for having the guts to do it. I’ve pondered that news article scores of times over the years, always with sadness that they had to die without support, and with regret that I refused to support Paul in his wish to die. Every time I remember that Florida couple, I ask myself all over again if I could do as the man did if I had no better option, and the answer is always yes. I might try to make things a little easier by taking a few pills or having a few drinks first, but if Peggy and I were to ever agree that it was our time to die, I could make it happen. I’ve always been that way, and I live with unending grief over something I once did because of it, yet I acted out of the best that was within me. I can look back on many failures in my life, but when it comes to matters of life and death, I’ve always been able to do what needed to be done with the exception of helping Paul, and his death has only increased my resolve to never fail again.