Monday, November 20, 2017

Reflections On A Discarded Doll

I have in my possession the memories of another. While attending a play recently, Wait Until Dark, I bought a few raffle tickets to help support the players and the theater. Well, it turned out I won, and what I thought was baskets containing gifts for multiple winners all went to me. Gift certificates to local restaurants and elsewhere, a wall clock, a basket of champagne, and a doll that was a central prop in the play.

This antique doll, so out of place in our home with no children, stares at me and asks me to invest in it meaning. She sits and waits upon my judgment as to what her fate will be. Is she to be cherished or dismissed, placed upon a shelf with pretty and delicate things or thrown in a box to be brought to Goodwill or, Heaven forbid, bagged and taken to the dump. Quite a burden to be placed on my shoulders. I never expected to win, and if I did I only really had my eyes on the champagne. I did not ask for this, but it has been thrust upon me and I now feel responsible for it.

How did I end up with it anyway? Why was it not given to one of the cast members, the female lead or the high-schooler playing the part of the young girl, a reminder of something they once held so dear? Have they so quickly moved on from something they invested so much of their time, talent, and efforts? For truly such an undertaking must have been a major commitment. A live performance of a full-length play is not something that can be accomplished lightly. Sacrifices must have been made by all involved, bonds must have been established, memories created…and then gone. A few nights live in front of an audience and it is all over, to be discarded like a prop that no longer has any use.

Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare understood my thoughts. I wonder what where his feelings upon closing a show he had worked so hard to stage? Did he truly think it was the end or did he somehow know his plays would still be popular hundreds of years after his death?

That (among other reasons) is why I have chosen to be a writer rather than a performer, because I hold forth the (perhaps foolish) hope that what I create might outlive me. I dislike the notion of things going to waste, which explains why I sit here and ponder over the fate of this doll that is now in my possession. How wonderful and how generous of artists to give of so completely of their talent and then freely let go, saying goodbye to what has been and moving on to the next adventure. And what a precious gift it is to the audience to be able to share all of your hard work in the moment. I wish to honor your gift by hanging on to the memory you have created for me and for all those who attended your performances.

And there is the conundrum: you live in the moment and I seek something more. You are able to let go and I am reluctant to do so. Is not something worthwhile worth holding on to?

Yet those who are unwilling to let go of memories soon find themselves with basements cluttered with items too precious to part with, also known to the outside eye as “junk”. I can see myself on a future episode of Hoarders, the man who could let go of nothing. My fear, though, is that once I’ve started letting go, I won’t know when to stop, that once I admit one thing is not important I will come to see that nothing is really important. Once I let go my grip, everything shall fall from my fingers. Like it was for Macbeth, nothing shall mean anything to me any longer.

So here I sit and contemplate the fitting future of a doll that in reality has no actual feelings except those I and others invested in it. Because I don’t know where to draw the line between what matters and what doesn’t. Because someone gave to me what by rights belongs to another. Because we live in a world that too lightly tosses things and people and memories aside when they no longer interest us. Perhaps it is because I do not want to be tossed aside so lightly when I am no longer of any use or interest to others. Which is why I write, and I contemplate, so that perhaps my words might take on meaning and purpose of their own. Perhaps they may take up residence in the basement of someone’s soul. Or perhaps I would be content to have them amuse you for a brief span of time, like the actors who worked so hard to mirror for us the lives we briefly walk through. Somewhere between the past and the now lies meaning, there has to be. For if there is no meaning, there is no future, no point in what has been or what we are doing now.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Boy And A Snake: A Confession

When I was young I killed a snake. I wasn’t alone, I was with a couple of other kids, but since my memories are of my own feelings and behavior, I will relate the story without mentioning the others. The memory of what I did disgusts me now, but at the time it seemed like an ordinary thing to do. Killing was something people did. I saw it every night on TV, on cop shows and war movies, everybody did it. You just had to be one of the good guys, that’s all, and it had to be a bad guy you killed. Those were the rules, and if you played by them, it didn’t matter how many you killed. You might disagree, but that was the impression I got and those where the rules as I understood them.

Animals were a different story, I suppose, but if you were looking for a bad guy, you couldn’t get a better animal to fill the role than a snake. But it was okay to kill animals, I was taught that early on. Animals, at least the fierce kind, were always being killed by explorers and super heroes in the adventure books and comic books I read. It was a sign of virility that Tarzan could kill a lion with nothing but a knife. I can still remember the line from the Davey Crockett song: “killed a bear when he was only three”. I couldn’t have been more than four years old when I heard that.

So I saw a snake in the grass one day and decided it needed to die. As I followed it, I picked up a rock. It wanted nothing to do with me, was attempting to get away. But it had committed the sin of occupying some of the earth that still belonged to nature and not to man, the grass that was allowed to grow around the houses that spread out all across suburbia.

I got close enough and I threw the rock at it, hit it. I played a lot of ball and had a pretty good arm. I hurt it, knew I did, but it was still attempting to squirm away from me, injured though it was. I found I really had no heart for this endeavor, but knew I had to finish what I had begun. If you’re going to injure a snake, you have to kill it. But damn, I had no idea how hard it was to kill a snake with a rock, because the snake really wanted to live and I discovered I really found the whole process most unpleasant.

Someone more adept at killing would have made shorter work of it, would have made the snake suffer less, but I could barely allow myself to see what I was doing. I felt a horror inside of me and the only thing that allowed me to continue was that I was able to project this horror for my own actions onto the snake.

I began to feel a great hatred for the snake, I imagined it to be the symbol and totem of all that was bad in the world. The more I injured it the more I hated it, because of the mindset my actions forced me into, a world of hatred and violence, of blood and death. I had to believe it wanted to cause me violence, because that was the only way to justify mine. I needed to believe that snakes and humans were incompatible and eternal enemies, because what the hell else could make me feel so almighty awful inside?

In truth, the snake had done nothing to me, it had only sought to exist in a world dominated by man and his constructions and his possessions. It only wanted to live its life in my neighborhood.

There was blood now, indistinguishable to my eyeball from my own blood, or the blood of my mother or my dog. It was blood, the universal life-giving fluid, the universal symbol of violence and death. And still the snake lived, though its life now was nothing but agony. The deed still needed to be finished. I discovered that throwing the rock was not going to get the job done. It was easier for me to throw it, because it somehow distanced me somewhat from the violence. Eventually, in order to finish the job, I had to use the rock like a club, get up close and personal about it, intimately involved so that I could no longer have any illusions about what I was doing.

And having finished it, the immediate desire was to wipe it from my memory, to distance myself as much from it as possible. The dead thing I gazed at was far more repulsive than the live snake it had been a moment ago. I would have buried it if I could, but instead I picked it up with a stick and flung it in an out of the way place. “There is evil in the world,” I thought to myself, “evil that is best to keep distanced from the ordinary world we live in.” For a long time there was a dark spot in my mind in that corner of the yard between two fences where I flung the evidence of what I had done.

I behaved the way I did because I knew no better. If I had had an older brother who owned a pet snake, I wouldn’t have done what I did. Had I lived in a family or a time or a culture that respected nature and all life more, I never would have done it. But I was born in an era that still believed nature was something that needed to be conquered.

I was disgusted by the incident, though at the time I didn’t fully understand why. But had I lived in a different situation, one where violence was expected of me, I’m sure I would have learned in time to ignore the feelings of horror and revulsion and eventually take pride in the violent actions I participated in as long as society approved of it.

I don’t seek to avoid blame by shifting it to society, indeed the point of this essay is that we should not look away from the evil that we do or rationalize or excuse it. But the fact is had I been raised in a different culture, I wouldn’t have behaved in a way that was so obviously against my nature. And as much as the individual is responsible for his own actions, he is also responsible for shaping the culture he is part of. If we continue to accept a culture that sees the individual as completely separate from the larger world, then we will continue to shape a culture that justifies violence, the us against them mindset in which conflict is inevitable.

Nature has been conquered by man now, as much as it ever can be while continuing to support man’s existence. The point of view that directed or at least suggested my deed to me is no longer acceptable or workable in the reality we now face. We must come to realize that we cannot continue to live in violent opposition to nature but must find a way to peacefully coexist with it. The change we must make is fundamental and profound. We must switch from perceiving anything or anyone that is not our immediate friend, family, or countryman, as enemies which excuse our violence and hatred.

We must stop viewing what takes place within that narrow bit of nature that we call a yard as our domain where we are absolute masters. We must stop viewing ourselves as apart from nature and the rest of humanity and start seeing ourselves as a part of it. Only then will we be able to see violence as the destructive force it is, incapable of making a better world or a better future.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Doing Things Sucks

I write these words with a ringing in my ear, an aching in my shoulders, and a firm conviction never to do anything ever again. The next time we require a new smoke alarm for our house, we shall simply move.

My wife and I decided it was time to get a new smoke alarm. I’m not sure what put that idea in our heads, but I’m willing to bet it was our way of avoiding doing actual housework in order to go shopping. In my lifetime I’ve spent a lot of money in order to get out of the house where countless projects await. The problem is that once you go shopping, you end up with one more project sitting at home for you. The trick is to go shopping, buy whatever junk food is on sale, and conveniently forget that item that had originally justified your trip. That way you can say you tried, you will get to it another day, and you have bags of junk food to eat while watching TV. The ideal Saturday afternoon.

The problem with bringing your wife along is she usually remembers that pesky item you’d be so willing to forget. She won’t be the one installing it after all, so it’s no skin off her nose. All of the shopping, none of the work, and half of the junk food: a pretty good deal for her.

Not only does she remember to purchase the offensive and utterly unnecessary item, within a few weeks, she actually reminds you that it needs to be installed. I suppose the piles of purchased items sitting on the kitchen counter can sometimes get in the way of her dinner preparations.

I, on the other hand, have become so used to the sight of the smoke alarm sitting on the kitchen counter that I no longer notice it. It’s like that coffee mug I never use but sits on a shelf because it was a gift and I don’t know how to get rid of it. But eventually the constant drone of reminders threatens to become more piercing than the sound that awaits me when I test the fire alarm, and I am urged into reluctant action.

It’s not a big deal, I tell myself. It’s just a smoke alarm. This is a ten minute project, tops. Unscrew the old one, throw it in the trash, and screw the new one back in. I cut open the plastic container to appraise my quarry, and the first pangs of regret are upon me. Why the hell do they have to package these things the way they do? Why can’t you just have a cardboard box that opens up, why do I have to awkwardly cut through unyielding plastic, being very careful not to cut the instructions that inconveniently spill to the very edge of the plastic.

Ah, the instructions. 36 pages of instructions, I kid you not. This is not going to be a ten minute project. Evelyn Wood couldn’t read the instructions in ten minutes. Granted, only half of those are in English, but I’m having a hell of a time figuring which is which. The instructions start on step 3, and I unfold the accordion-like piece of paper searching for the beginning.

After turning the instruction sheet over like five times trying to find step one, I finally eye it. Oops, my bad, it’s numero uno. If only I had taken my Spanish studies more seriously I could get started on this damn smoke alarm.

Some men throw away the instructions and figure it out themselves. Others read and obey the instructions thoroughly. Me, I choose the worst of both worlds. I read step one, realize I’m already on step three, and then have to go back to step two to figure out what I missed. My eyes glaze over as paragraph after paragraph warn me about stupid things like how I should not touch the 9-volt to my tongue or stick it in my ear. God, the amount of warnings is insane. Nobody dumb enough not to know such things is intelligent enough to read the warnings.

So I bounce back and forth between directions, bounce back and forth between trying to figure it out on my own and having questions I need answered. I bounce back and forth between number five and number four…oops, that’s numero quatro. I read enough to believe I have a fair idea of what I’m doing (I lie, I have no idea what I’m doing, I just got sick of reading unnecessary details like how screwing in a clockwise direction will tighten, not loosen, the screw).

So I’m now standing on the step stool which is just tall enough to convince me I can reach the smoke alarm, and just short enough to force me to the upper limits of my tippy-toes. I have my multi-tip screwdriver in hand, phillips tip inserted, the rest jangling within the handle in case a phillips won’t do. Which of course it doesn’t. So I unscrew the lid of the handle and accidentally spill the tips on the floor. As I pick them up, I look at each one and see assorted shapes so unusual that they were never discussed in my high school geometry class. Screwdriver options that I have never required nor will I ever require. In what parallel universe do they use the star-shaped head and what unusual set of circumstances caused it to find its way into mine? Why, Dear Sweet Jesus, why did they feel it necessary to give me not one but two hexagon sizes to choose from? And where the hell is the flat head?

I scan the floor, looking first in the most obvious place, and slowly work out from there. I get flat on my stomach to peer under the refrigerator. I ask myself where I would go if I was a flat-head screwdriver attachment. I briefly consider torching the house myself and then remember that the insurance won’t cover it if they discover the smoke alarm wasn’t installed.

The circle widens as my hopes for ever finding it continues to shrink. I am now left with two options: I am losing my mind and cannot find something that only fell a few feet onto carpeting, or else there never was a flathead screwdriver attachment, that it had already been misplaced long ago. I choose option number two because I want to cling to the illusion of being sane for a while longer yet, and also because I do have other options. In the garage, I know, are two tool boxes, each containing an ample assortment of screwdrivers. This thing shall yet be done. I am a man, I can do this.

Optimism accompanies me on my walk to the garage. It is still with me as I opt for toolbox A rather than toolbox B to begin my search. It shouldn’t matter which one I choose, there must be at least one flathead screwdriver in each of them. I open up Toolbox A and am happy to see a plethora of yellow and black colored handles within. I grab one, a phillips. I grab another, also a phillips. Each failure brings me closer to success. Another phillips, what are the odds? One last screwdriver to go, this has to be it. The laws of the universe dictate it must be a flathead, the law of averages not to mention moral laws compel it to be so. Except it isn’t. I gaze into the inky depths of the toolbox, see the wooden handled screwdriver and make one last desperate grab not only at a phillips screwdriver, but at my fast-vanishing sanity. Phillips.

The second toolbox contains a flathead, apparently the only one I own. I put the rest of the tools back, the process of actually fitting them back to allow the lid to close as difficult as it was with the first one. I march back into the house, get back on my tippy-toes and strain to reach the screw. My bifocals are useless in helping me see the small object as it lies at the top of my vision. I try and I try until suddenly the revelation is inescapable: perhaps it was a phillips screw after all.

It was. It was just one of those poor fitting phillips that is too small for the large phillips and too large for the small phillips. It’s one of those you-can-unscrew-it-but-it’s-going-to-take-every-ounce-of-will-you-have phillips.

My shoulders ache. My toes ache as I balance on them in a way that makes me wish for ballerina slippers. I consider trading the stool for a chair, but damn it, this should NOT BE SO DAMN DIFFICULT. A while later I realize the chair is needed.

Those things I considered before I began my task go quickly enough. Until I get to the “insert battery” step. You would think this would be the easy step, wouldn’t you? Except there’s this red lever that sticks up, making it impossible to close the lid to the battery. I consider simply breaking it off but worry about the consequences. I have come so far, so far. I can do this. I want to make my wife proud. Well, at least not ashamed. Taking a deep breath, I peruse the instruction sheet one more time.

And in the end I succeed. The alarm is tested and installed. It sits upon the ceiling ready to traumatize my dog the next time I leave bread in the toaster too long. I am a man. I am a doer. I am…exhausted.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Complexity In A Single Leaf

I took my dog for a walk on a fine fall day yesterday, and while we shared the journey, we were soon lost in our own worlds. My attention was grabbed by the endless variety of leaves—even in my own neighborhood—all differently exhibiting the effects of a turn to colder weather. Meanwhile my dog was more interested in the smells that lay at the base of the trees, so much so that she often resisted when I tried to urge her onward when she wasn’t finished.

Each tree had a different response to the change of season. Some were already quite bald, while others were still relatively green. Some trees seemed to lose their leaves as if they had contracted a disease, the leaves developing black splotches. Others turned brown at the edges, as if slowly being overcome with rot. Still others turned riotous colors, determined to go down in a blaze of glory. Some trees were dressed in red, others orange, still others a most definite pink, fragile yet angelic like memories of my grandmother.

And then, while indulging my dog in a particularly intense sniffing session, I chanced to gaze upon a single leaf. It contained a black spot, surrounded by brown, edged by orange, then going into red and finally green.

The thought struck me suddenly that there was more complexity within that single leaf than ever I could hope to understand with my intellect. It had a personal history that made it the size it was, had a more recent history which caused it to be the colors it now was. It had a variety of veins bringing nourishment from branches, even as it transformed the sun’s light into energy for the tree. Millions of cells composed of billions of atoms, each placed in their proper position to do their job, each encoded with genetic information distinct to the tree it belongs to.

If my mind was incapable of truly understanding this single leaf, how then was it expected to make sense of the billions of leaves I saw on my walk, not to mention everything else I encountered? How was I expected to know not only a small thing in itself but its relationship to the myriad other pieces of the universe that are constantly interacting and affecting each other?

Then I glanced at my dog, who was still exploring the world around her in her own fashion. She was absorbing information through her nose the way I was with my eyes, in a way I could never hope to understand. She perceived the universe through her dog senses in a way completely different than me, and yet it was enough to permit her to function within it. Her search for information was as important to her as mine was to me, if perhaps a trifle less reflective. Each scent told her something useful, provided her clues that might alert her to potential food or danger. But she, like me, was living in her own little bubble, no more aware of it than most of us are.

I couldn’t help thinking that if there was any lesson to be learned that it was how much we do not know. If we ever hope to be even slightly wise, the most important thing to remember is how lacking our intellects are. Intellectual humility must be our defining guide in life. To be proud of being smarter than another is like a child who brags about having captured more of the ocean’s water than a child with a smaller pal.

Meanwhile my dog continued to sniff, indifferent to my thoughts. I realize that perhaps the nose can tell us more about our world than our thoughts can. A person surrounded by pleasant smells is usually happier than one who is not. I trust my nose far more than my intellect, trust my ability to smell spoiled milk more than I trust the date listed on the container.

But beyond even my sense of smell, beyond the accumulated information my collective senses provide, there is the internal sense of well-being that is more important in explaining to us our relationship to the world. Define it how you will, philosophically, psychologically, or spiritually, there is a way of perceiving the world that leads us to life, health, and happiness that is far superior to the intellect. It is more than time we quiet our intellects and listen attentively to whatever information that sense is providing us.