Intimacy and Dental Floss

Until you take a bad fall, you don’t know how good life can be when all limbs work properly and you’re not dependent upon someone to wipe your ass.

When my life partner Josie took a freak fall one evening, while walking home from dinner, the words from our marriage vow “for better or worse” took on a whole new meaning. One moment, she was fine, the next she was flat on her face in the street. Fortunately, having broken the fall with both arms, she had escaped with only a few bruises to her face and her head uninjured. Unfortunately, she had managed to completely shatter her right elbow and break her left wrist. As the doctor in the emergency room described the extent of her injuries, I tried to stay calm as I processed the information internally, weighing each word. I could see the neurons flashing a fortune cookie message in my brain: Your life will be filled with new adventures.

Whenever I heard about such stuff happening to other people, I would try to imagine how I might deal with it. Would I be up to the task when, these days, getting out of bed is challenging enough? I mean, how does one deal with your spouse developing Alzheimer’s? Or terminal cancer? Would I be able to face the fact that I was now a 24-7 caregiver for an indeterminate future stretching into a life unknown? What if I ended up having to do everything for my spouse and, like most of us, couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it? My mind reeled with the daily realities. Dressing. Feeding. Bathing. Hair brushing and tooth brushing. Walking, including to and from the bathroom, followed by ass wiping. That last part gave me pause. I have enough problems wiping my own ass, but to think I might have to do this for my spouse and also have to deal with how she might feel about it was not something I wanted to think about.

Our situation was only temporary, but I knew that, for months ahead, the carefree retired life we had enjoyed was about to go on hold.

Luckily for me, Josie’s mind was still sharp as ever. It meant that I would not have to face this test alone. More than ever, we were a team, devising new strategies to meet daily challenges. Of course, with both arms incapacitated, she was forced to play a more passive role and could only advise me on what to do, gently informing me when I screwed up, and cheering me on when I got it right.

First, we had to establish a base camp for sleeping. We live in a townhouse apartment, and going up and down the stairs to our bedroom was just not an option. Fortunately, we have a guest bedroom with two single beds on the first floor. This meant that Josie could have her own bed without the danger of my rolling over and crushing her arms during the night. Also, I could be in the same room to help her to the adjoining bathroom.

Having secured safe sleeping quarters, I began to reevaluate all those little daily tasks I perform automatically for myself and to consider how best to perform them for another person. Take bathing, for example. You just jump in the shower and start cleaning yourself without so much as a game plan. You don’t think about the most efficient way to apply the soap and rinse, or whether you are getting yourself clean enough. But it’s different when you’re cleaning someone else, especially someone who’s wearing bandages that can’t get wet. The problem was resolved with a trip to the drugstore where I purchased plastic sleeves to fit over each arm, and a sturdy bathtub seat. Then it was on to Lowe’s to pick up a handy shower attachment so I didn’t end up flooding the bathroom every time I bathed Josie. But it took us both several weeks of splashing, thrashing, and cursing to figure these things out.

Eating was fun. Not only was Josie totally unable to pick up a fork, but she was still suffering from a recent flareup of orofacial nerve pain as a result of a botched root canal procedure a few years back, and her fall did not exactly help matters. So we took it slow. I would cut up her meal into bite-size portions and wait until the pain subsided enough for her to eat. We had always enjoyed our dinners together, enlivened by wine and intelligent conversation, but it was painful to watch her struggle now to get a bite down, made even more so by the look on her face from the realization that I had to feed her like an infant. Meals took twice as long. We eventually worked out a routine in which I would alternately feed her a few bites, then take a few bites myself. After a while, she started experimenting with two unbandaged fingers on one hand, and was soon able to pick up small pieces of food herself, though she still could not pick up anything as heavy as a glass in order to drink. Thank goodness for straws.

Funny how you adjust to things and find new insights. After the first week or so, as we settled into a new reality, we started enjoying our much-extended dinner times. No longer would she have to remind me not to wolf my meal. We learned to savor each bite and our time together, made more precious by the knowledge that we had survived this setback and were both still alive and kicking. And if takes us an hour and a half to eat our dinner, hey, so what?

We’re both very active people, and Josie knew she had to get moving again. The first few days, she would take walks around the first floor of our apartment, with her trusty guide at her side. The fear of falling was very much on our minds. We were still the same people who had fearlessly tackled rugged trails in the wilderness together. But now that one of us had taken a bad fall, it reminded us how vulnerable our increasingly brittle and fragile bodies can be. I hate that! And I hate writing that line. Reality sucks.

Before leaving the hospital, the physical therapist had given us a broad nylon belt, which could be buckled around Josie’s waist while leaving just enough room for my hand to be slipped behind it, giving me a way to hold her firmly in the event of another fall. Such a simple thing, yet an invaluable tool in getting us walking again and conquering our fears. It was a little awkward getting used to, at first, but with me holding on tightly behind her it gave me a way to get us safely down the concrete stairs leading to our apartment and to resume our walks in the neighborhood.

It did feel kind of weird. With my hand planted behind her back and both her arms extended uselessly forward, I felt in complete control, directing her every movement. By turning my hand ever so slightly and applying gentle pressure, I found I could make her turn in the direction I thought we should go to avoid obstacles or rough surfaces as we attempted to walk in unison with some degree of dignity. It was a totally different kind of walking for both of us, and for a brief time I was in charge, whether I liked it or not.

Gradually our walks extended further afield in the neighborhood, as we gained confidence. Walking had always been a vital part of our life and now, more than ever, it was essential to get back into the routine.

One thing I noticed. I seemed to tire more quickly. At first, I thought it was just stress. After a couple of weeks had passed and I was able to leave Josie alone for a short time to visit the nearby gym, the normally ten-minute walk now took twice as long and I had to cut my workout sessions short. I always came home exhausted. What was happening to me? Suddenly I felt ninety years old. Then it dawned on me. The older you get, the more time you must devote to the seemingly endless series of routine tasks just to care for oneself each day. Only now, I was doing them for two. Not only did I have to put on clean underwear, but I had to put hers on as well. I had to go to the bathroom, and take her there next, followed by grooming, feeding, drinking, toothbrushing, walking, and whatever else I did for myself. A tiny epiphany, but it gave me both a sense of relief that I was not facing total decrepitude, and a sense of awe at the work that full-time caregivers do.

Not that there weren’t compensations. After a few weeks had passed, we settled into a manageable and at times even pleasant routine. We took each day at a slower pace, trying to find some new insight or small pleasure we had overlooked. I began to see things I had never noticed before. As I tried my best to comb Josie’s hair, according to her instructions, at first I felt hopelessly lost. It dawned on me, then, that I really didn’t have a clue as to how my life partner of over forty years wore her hair, except for the fact that it was short. How she combed her front bang down slightly to cover her high forehead. How she brushed the hair behind her ears and shaped the back into a point. Had it not been for her fall, I would never have known these things. After a while, I got pretty good with the hairdryer. I imagined myself as some handsome and suave hairdresser—just call me Ramone—getting her hair to fluff up just right. My flight of fancy lasted but two weeks, at which point she decided she could manage her hair without me. Guess I wasn’t really cut out for hairdressing.

Bathing presented even more opportunities for new insights and intimacies. Once the basic problem of how to get Josie’s body clean efficiently without stressing us both out and flooding the bathroom floor was solved, we gradually settled into a smooth rhythm. I now new the drill and could devote myself more fully to the appreciation of my spouse’s lovely body. Not that I hadn’t appreciated it before. But this was different. I was performing a necessary basic task which I had initially viewed as somewhat onerous, but it had taken on a wholly new dimension. Like that first time we had made love, I was clumsy in the beginning, but as my hand glided over her body with a soapy washcloth, I began to see and discover it anew. You do not really know your lover’s body until you have washed every inch of her and gently patted her dry. It was a different kind of sexual pleasure, an arousal more of spirit than of body. We both grew to enjoy this gentle touching, as I explored parts of her body never really noticed before in simple lovemaking. And while I am glad that I don’t have to wash her anymore, I will remember it always.

Wiping my lover’s ass, however, is hardly a memory to cherish. Damned if I could find any compensations there. The only thing I can say looking back on it now is that it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I had imagined, aided considerably by the use of latex gloves, but largely by the fact that my spouse has a cute ass. But don’t take my word for it. During our first year of marriage, I found I needed a new dentist. So I made an appointment with Josie’s dentist, who I was quick to discover was a lecherous old man with a wicked sense of humor. As I sat agape in his chair, his instruments probing my teeth, out of nowhere he suddenly exclaimed, “You know, your wife has a great ass!” I almost choked, as I mumbled some unintelligible reply, then reluctantly nodded. How could I disagree?  I had always especially treasured that part of her anatomy. But now that I had to keep it clean each day, I learned to approach the task as a sacred honored duty. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for her, but once again Josie came through with calm, clear instructions on what needed to be done and where, and got me through it. Hard to believe that such a simple basic thing as wiping my lover’s ass could bring us closer and make me feel more needed and worthy than ever.

But for real intimacy, nothing beats dental hygiene. I thought I knew all the hidden mysteries and intricacies of Josie’s body, after all these years, but I still knew nothing of the world inside her mouth. Now Josie is a real stickler for proper brushing, flossing, and rinsing, dutifully spending over half an hour each night in front of the mirror while cursing its relentless monotony. And here I was, stepping up to the plate, in hopes of performing this duty at least passably and getting it done before midnight.

The first few nights were a struggle, compounded by the fact that Josie has extremely sensitive teeth. In brushing your own teeth, of course, you can just bend over the sink and spit, but in Josie’s case this was impossible. Not only was she unable to rest her hands on the sink, but there was no way for me to see inside her mouth while standing at the sink next to her. So I sat her on the toilet and covered her torso with a bib, as I played at being dental hygienist. Then I used our electric toothbrush, with one hand gently brushing from tooth to tooth and the other hand holding a small plastic spittoon beneath her mouth to catch the overflow and allow her to occasionally spit. It was not a pretty picture. Often I would have to slow down to let her catch her breath or go back to reach a tooth missed.

The real challenge came in flossing. It’s difficult enough to floss my own teeth properly, holding a long strand of floss between two hands and then manipulating it in my mouth, rhythmically rubbing up and down against each tooth a half dozen times. When done correctly, it’s a painfully boring task, but vital to tooth and gum health. But trying to get my two big paws and that strand of floss inside Josie’s mouth proved awkward and frustrating for both of us. Fortunately, I discovered a handy little plastic tool called a dental flosser, which holds an inch or so of floss taut, so I didn’t have to put both my hands in her mouth and risk choking my dear wife. Disposable plastics to the rescue, again.

Having previously experienced periodontal disease during my wasted youth, I am also a stickler for dental health and pretty much knew the drill. But the only teeth I knew were mine, and I had to fast learn about a whole new set of teeth and gums. Indeed, I can say that I know them now almost as well as my own.

Coming at the end of the day, and taking even longer than Josie’s usual half hour, it was probably the most tedious task for both of us. But together we learned how to better navigate around her mouth, and gradually it became less strenuous. And when the job was finished, she would look up at me and flash a grin with her now sparkling teeth and I felt a communion with her that transcended all that had gone before. We were more than lovers and friends, we were comrades of tooth and gum forever.

After two months, the bandages came off and slowly our life returned to normalcy. Josie began to resume her daily routine, taking pride in again performing her own daily maintenance and freeing me up to go back to doing all those things I had put on hold, which in retrospect seemed less urgent. She embraced weekly sessions of physical therapy with a fierce determination to regain all her strength and ability. She had always been a strong woman, but I now watched in amazement at my new wonder woman surpassing herself each day with daily feats of recovery. And evildoers better beware of that sharp right elbow, newly reinforced with metal brace.

Our experience left us more aware of not only the possibility, but the probability of falling as well as our ability to survive it. Not that we dwell on it. But I’ve noticed a certain tendency to nag, whenever one of us goes up or down the stairs without grabbing the handrail or makes too sudden a turn. According to government statistics, one out of four Americans aged 65 or over falls each year, and every 19 minutes one of us will die as a result. Those are not good odds. Makes you almost afraid to go out the front door. Not what we seniors need to hear, especially when we’re also told to not sit so much and to keep on moving. So what’s an old fuck to do?

For one thing, I’m going to make damned sure I don’t fall. At heart I am a coward when it comes to being a care recipient. I can’t begin to imagine someone having to feed, wash, and dress me each day, let alone—horrors—wipe my ass. I am sadly deficient in all the social skills my life partner possesses in spades—patience, grace, good sense, and fortitude. I know full well that, in the event I did fall, my loving spouse would be there to take care of me. All I can say is, good luck with that, Josie. I would not wish that monstrous fate on anyone.

 

 

Imagining Wilderness

Sitting on a rock overlooking Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, I gazed beyond the grass and sage-covered plains to a more distant view. In my mind’s eye, I followed the Lamar River drainage, exploring lonely dark spruce-fir forests and meadows in the footsteps of grizzlies and wolves. An hour earlier, on a park road jammed with tourists, I had actually seen my first wolves—a few specks of black dancing at the edge of my vision. And I imagined what it would be like to wind among sagebrush that had known the touch of wolves.

It is a trip that I have taken many times since. With each passing year, its memories grow more vivid and no less meaningful to me than if I had actually backpacked into that wilderness.

In this case, there was at least some link to actuality. I was in my sixties and at last had fulfilled my dream of visiting this iconic national park. The wilderness lay just ahead, not far from where I sat. I could almost smell the sagebrush on the wind. All I had to do was head for the horizon and keep walking. But why bother, when I had already imagined it.

Lately, I have visited other wilderness areas as well, with no sensory link other than a book, map or video image. When I look at them on a map, running my fingers over the contour lines, in a real sense I feel a connection. I have stood at the very Gates of the Arctic, surrounded by virtual black flies, flower-covered tundra and the immense solitude of the Brooks Range. I have wandered through alpine meadows of the John Muir Trail from Yosemite all the way to Mount Whitney and explored the endless hidden canyons of Escalante. And I have visited, at no expense, the fabled islands of Galapagos, where I have marveled at giant tortoises and marine dragons and followed the path of Darwin.

Being the dreamer I am, it’s a wonder I didn’t think of this sooner. It might have saved me a lot of grief and confusion.

Growing up, I was always a bookish loner. Since my earliest childhood, I have imagined wilderness, chiefly from the books I read.  Writers such as John Muir, Sigurd F. Olson, William O. Douglas, and Edward Abbey provided such glowing firsthand accounts of wild places that I could feel myself there beside them. With Sigurd Olson I have skated down a silvery mirrored lake in the Quetico-Superior country, bathed in the aurora’s shimmering light. I have swayed in the treetops with John Muir as he described it in “A Wind-Storm in the Forests.” Once, while out walking in gale-force winds through a New Hampshire forest, I considered recreating Muir’s experience by climbing a tall white pine. The feeling lasted only a moment, then was quickly suppressed by common sense.

Indeed, we are indebted to writers such as these for instilling a love and thirst for wilderness that provided the first impetus for its preservation. Together with paintings and photographs, these earliest accounts of Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and other scenic wonders first stirred the imaginations of urban readers, often far removed from these places, to support legislation  to preserve them. Only later would some get the chance to visit these places. But first we had to imagine them.

Starting in my teens, I would take long walks alone through the tame parks and state forests of Connecticut suburbia. Though a far cry from real wilderness, they provided me with a stage to act out the fantasy that I was some kind of wilderness superman, aloof from the world, sufficient unto myself, sustained only by my love for wildness. So powerful was the image that by high school I had convinced myself that the only path for me was to become a natural resource professional, protecting wildlife, forests, and scenery in the great outdoors.

I think my dad had something to do with this. He was always telling me about how he wanted to be a forest ranger. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, however, and he eventually landed a job as a postman with the U.S. Postal Service. There he remained and raised a family, in the small suburban city where both he and son were born. He seemed to be content with the life he had made, and I wonder if he would have been as happy spotting forest fires or cruising timber in some remote corner of the wilderness.

Rebellious child of the sixties, I was going to be different, not chained down by the stultifying sameness of Connecticut suburbia. Like my dad, I was a dreamer, but I was about to be kicked in the head.

In hindsight, I should have seen it coming, but I was a cocky, know-it-all kid who thought he had life all figured out. There were plenty of clues, if I had ever bothered to look. My dad, for instance, for all his talk of being a forest ranger, was a real homebody, a man who didn’t stray far from his front door. In so many ways, I was just like him. Yes, we took hikes in the woods, but not once did he ever suggest we try roughing it. Family trips to the Adirondacks and White Mountains always involved a well-stocked ice chest and clean, comfortable hotels. All I remember from the few times I tried backpacking myself was how much fun it is carrying forty pounds on your back, how hard it is to sleep with tree roots and rocks projecting into your butt, and the sinister rustling sounds that a mouse can make outside your tent.

Unlike my dad, affording college was no obstacle. So in 1967, at the end of my freshman year as a major in wildlife management at the University of Connecticut, I was ready to test myself against the wilderness. One of my professors had landed me an entry-level federal job for the summer cruising timber for the U.S. Forest Service, in the remote town of Cougar, Washington. Yes, that was its actual name. It sounded every bit as wild as my dreams. For weeks before I left, I lorded it over my friends. I was off to the wilderness—a real mountain man. Even bought my first sleeping bag.

The big day came, and my parents saw me off on my first airline trip—a red eye flight—to Portland, Oregon. There, early the next morning, I was picked up by a kindly Forest Service employee who drove us fifty miles northeast into Washington and the rugged mountains of the southern Cascades in Gifford Pinchot Natural Forest. Raised in New England, I had never seen such wild country in my life. Glacial rivers surging through ravines of giant boulders. Trees hundreds of feet tall, with trunks so massive it would take six men to span them. Forests that seem to go on forever. I was both giddy and slightly frightened. This was no imagined wilderness.

We finally reached camp where I was handed my first big dose of reality. The deal I had signed on for had stated that the Forest Service would provide lodging with a bed and a shared room. The supervisor informed me, however, that all the rooms were filled. So he assigned me to a cot in a huge tent shared by a few dozen fellow employees, all of whom snored so loud it’s a wonder the tent didn’t come down. Inside the tent, it was hot by day and freezing cold by midnight, and despite my sleeping bag I shivered most of the night. Nobody had told me I would spend the summer camping.

My first two days on the job involved working with a professional forester cruising timber. I took turns with another new guy measuring and recording such things as tree species, diameter at breast height (DBH), height, and defects. After a while, I got the hang of it, though the forester became increasingly frustrated with me at how all the number 2’s that I recorded in the entry book always looked like “s.” I could tell it was really starting to bug him. To this day, I can’t write a 2 without wondering if it looks like an “s.”

On Saturday morning, a bunch of us temps went out on a hike along a nearby river. There were elk tracks winding everywhere through the giant, moss-covered trees. We approached one huge Douglas fir, and it took six of us to get our arms around its circumference. And there in the distance was the snow-covered summit of Mount St. Helens. Little did I know that in thirteen years it would blow its top and lay waste to much of this forest.

That evening, we went into the local town and headed for the bar. I wasn’t into drinking back then, but I enjoyed shooting some pool and swapping stories. I remember one guy in particular, who made quite an impression on me. Frankly, he scared me. He had grown up in Washington and loved the back country more than anything else. He wanted to get as far back in the timber as he could to get away from people and modern civilization. “All you folks coming here from back East,” he said, his eyes ablaze with righteousness, “are ruining this state. Soon there won’t be any wilderness left.” For him, the state was already too crowded. People were the problem, and as far as he was concerned they could all go to hell. Who needs ‘em?

It’s funny how one conversation can bring everything into sudden focus. Up until that moment, I had thought that maybe things would be fine and that I could tough it out. Sure, I was homesick and had to sleep in a damn tent. Deal with it. But suddenly all the thoughts and impressions of the past few days crashed head on with my romantic notions of wilderness and myself. Is this really the life I wanted, a life alone in the wilderness? All I really knew was that I was not that guy back in the bar. I could hear Barbara Streisand singing “people who need people” in my head. It was all a mistake and I had to get out of there fast.

My supervisor tried to talk me out of it, then shook his head and accepted my abrupt resignation. He had seen it all before. Everyone was remarkably cool about it. The forester who had driven me into camp agreed to take me back to Portland and even loaned me the money to catch a flight back East. So I came home, tail dragging between my legs, and started life over again. The worst part was the way my dad looked at me as he saw his dream to be a forest ranger go up in smoke again.

Of course, I still dream of what my life might have been if I had stuck it out, a life full of adventures in the wilderness. But it wasn’t me. And as I look back on the life I have made for myself, I wouldn’t trade it for all the adventures in the world. Yes, it was painful and embarrassing to come home and admit my mistake. But if I hadn’t made that journey, I would never have found out who I really am.

I still dream of wilderness, and even hike there sometimes. Though I’m certainly no John Muir or Bob Marshall, I have logged enough wilderness hours to know some of the sensory images and feelings that only such places can provide. Each of my wilderness hikes, even if only for a few hours, has been a privileged moment. Whether in one of the great wilderness parks like Death Valley, Canyonlands, or Yellowstone, or in some smaller corner of wildness in Maine, New Hampshire, or the Great Smokies, I experience the same kind of emotion. I become a different person. Crossing the wilderness boundary, I can feel myself expanding, filling with new possibilities. These moments have provided me with a sensory record of detailed memories that I can call up faster than a mouse click. With this record I can not only recreate these actual trips but, by using input from many sources, including words and images of wilderness recorded for me by others, build upon them to create entirely new trips in my mind.

There are definite advantages to this kind of trip. Age, physical ability, and money are no obstacles. There are no bugs, rapids, or grizzlies. Also, if we agree that wilderness areas are precious, does it then follow that all of us must visit them? I doubt that the American wilderness would long survive such a loving assault. Maybe it’s better that most of us limit ourselves to an occasional visit, making do for the most part with experiences of the virtual kind—the kind that leave no footprints.

This is not about turning wilderness into some kind of video game. For no matter how convincing the experience might seem, there is no substitute for the actual. It is the source of all images, all input.  The virtual wilderness is only as good as its programming, and for that we need raw data from the real thing to feed into our devices and dreams.

I suspect imagining wilderness will become easier in the near future, with virtual reality headsets and “interactive imaging systems.” Fascinated as many of us are with technology, I can imagine a time when virtual wilderness trips become so vivid and convincing that people may prefer them to the real thing. After all, why get wet when you can just put on a helmet and float down the Colorado?  Who am I to judge when I can still get a virtual thrill from reading about John Muir swaying in the wind atop a tree?

I now live in Tucson, a city surrounded by mountains and bona fide wilderness. On a recent short hike at Sabino Canyon, I paused to rest my stiff, arthritic limbs. Just ahead was a sign marking the wilderness boundary. I gazed up longingly at the steep
trail winding for miles through the solitary feeder canyons, where new wonders beckon … if only my feet would take me there. But a man can always dream.

 

How I Met Vonnegut or Goodbye Blue Monday

vonnegut

It was November 1990, back when I lived in Providence. A short, offhand blurb on page four of the local paper for which I wrote quietly announced that Kurt Vonnegut would be in town to address Brown University students at Alumnae Hall. “Check to see if any tickets remain,” said the article. Say what?!?

In exactly twenty-fours, one of the major writers of the twentieth century and my all-time hero was scheduled to appear at my very door. My chances of getting a ticket now were about as slim as finding a rent-controlled apartment in Trump Tower. Nonetheless, I ran like a bad rumor over to Brown—only to be told that all 600 tickets had been handed out a week ago, two tickets per Brown ID. It was shaping up to be blue Monday, indeed.

“Why don’t you just go over there and tell them you write for a local newspaper?” asked my wife in a cheery, optimistic voice. “There’s your ticket.”

Raising my head slowly out of a bowl of soggy corn flakes in which I was trying to drown myself, I looked at her and laughed. “Yeah, right. With hundreds of bigwig journalists there, from George Wills and Mark Patinkin to Hunter Thompson and, who knows, maybe Tom Wolfe, do you really think they’re going to let me in there? Don’t be absurd.”

“Got any better ideas?” asked Josie, in her gentle tone of why-did-I-marry-this-jerk sarcasm.

I did not. So I called the Brown News Bureau and introduced myself. “Hello, my name is Gene Twaronite and I write for The East Side Monthly. I’ve been assigned to write an article on the Vonnegut lecture. I was wondering if …”

“Who did you say you are?” asked the young woman. “Isn’t that the paper that runs all those disgusting sex ads?”

“No, that’s the other paper,” I reassured her. “We only run ads for poodles and politicians.”

“A press conference has been scheduled for three,” she said. “Just show your press card at the door. There will also be a section reserved for the media at tonight’s lecture.”

“I don’t have a press card. My publisher says they’re too expensive.”

“Are you sure you’re a writer?” she asked, like I was something from the bottom of a dumpster.

After a short enumeration of my writing credits and the promise that I would throw myself off the Point Street Bridge if I didn’t get to see Vonnegut, she reluctantly agreed to meet me later at the door. I will remember her kindness always.

Shortly before three, I was allowed to enter and ushered into the inner sanctum—a small side room of the Maddock Alumni Center. Furtively I looked around, still expecting someone to challenge my credentials. But the expected horde of media hounds had so far failed to materialize. There wasn’t even a podium or microphone in sight. Just a few dozen folding chairs set in front of an overstuffed pink chair in a corner near the window.

Journalists started trickling into the room, though none of them were from the NY Times or Newsweek. There were eighteen of us in all, many from student newspapers. Tom Wolfe was nowhere to be seen.

Expecting to get no closer than 500 feet, I had brought with me a 300 mm telephoto lens for my camera, which I hoped would also certify me as a bona fide journalist. I had also equipped myself with a crisp new first edition of Vonnegut’s latest novel Hocus Pocus. One never knows.

Suddenly, he appeared. Wearing a dark grey suit, tie, and V-neck sweater, he strode gracefully into the room like a wise, beloved professor and quietly took his seat. Then, as if addressing old friends, he began to talk in a soft, reassuring voice.

“I’ll be speaking six times this year, speaking in some strange places … though this isn’t one of them.”

Then he launched into his opening remarks about the deplorable state of the country today and how “we are miserably led.” As he warmed to his subject, the pace and intensity of his words picked up. He described the choice of Dan Quayle for vice-president as “a terrible insult to the American people.” Sitting back and crossing his legs, he reminded me of a less flamboyant Mark Twain. His hollow, slightly vacant eyes—eyes that had seen too much yet never enough of this crazy world—stared back at us with a mixture of mirth and madness, inviting us to join the party. “Life is fooling around.”

With the precise timing of a good comic, he fired off one extravagant remark after another, occasionally interspersing them with common sense observations revealing the intense humanism that fueled his cynicism.

“I can understand people wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. But people who want to be managers, well … something is wrong with them.”

“Government’s a TV show.”

“The ideal government is an extended family.”

“I took my junior civics course in grade school very seriously.”

Asked by Providence Journal-Bulletin reporter Bob Kerr if “there is anyone you find particularly hopeful,” Vonnegut replied without hesitation. “Yes, the American people.”

Swallowing hard, I finally summoned the courage to ask my own question. “In your novel Galapagos, you raised the point that our brains may be too big for our own good. Do you …?”

He cut me off, delighted to be given this tangent, and went on to compare our brains to the ridiculously over-sized antlers of the extinct Irish elk. “Nature may have made a mistake.”

For a few more minutes, Vonnegut bantered with the media. He came to lecture, he told us, usually at the invitation of students, not faculty. He doubted if anyone from the English Department would be in attendance that night. To hear him tell it, he was a virtual nobody in the academic world. (This despite the fact that a seminar on his works was held by the Modern Language Association at its annual international convention back in 1975, where he was compared to such world class authors as Nabokov, Swift, and Twain. It was not the first or the last of such seminars)

Lost in sad reverie over one of his parting comments that “there were a lot of swell writers in the world who just weren’t ever going to be noticed,” I was caught by surprise when suddenly the author bolted out of his chair and began heading for the door. I remembered the book in my knapsack and lunged to intercept him.

He was almost home free, but I nabbed him just in time. “Mr. Vonnegut,” I asked in a timid voice. “This may seem tacky, but …would you mind signing my book?”

“Not at all,” he replied, staring at me with those wild, wonderful eyes of his. Then on the endpaper he made his famous scribble, complete with a certain orifice that some people mistake for a star.

That evening, having been told that press seats would be limited, I arrived at Alumnae Hall forty-five minutes early. I needn’t have worried. The first three rows on the left had been reserved for me and my fellow journalists. Being the first one there, I sat down in my privileged seat as the hall quickly filled to capacity and overflowed to the balcony and much of the floor.

Actually, the best seats in the house were reserved for the creative writing class. And sitting among the students, as if to nullify the author’s earlier prediction, were some unmistakably professorial types.

I was especially interested in hearing what Vonnegut had to say about how to be a writer. This time, there was a podium and even a blackboard. Right on time, he stepped up to the microphone and began to address the crowd with the same unpretentious grace as that afternoon.

He introduced himself as having been born of the last generation of novelists “whose brains were marinated in books.” He then told us that, if as some people claim, rock ‘n’ roll can cause suicides, he did not want anyone to read his latest book.

Commenting on the Voyager Spacecraft’s trip past the Outer Planets, the author displayed his scientific bias, proclaiming this “the most beautiful thing humans have ever done. Just think of it—we made that thing!”

For a while, he read animatedly from a prepared speech, which emphasized the darker side of his worldview. “We are swamped with bad news,” he reminded us, then ran through a checklist of his most deeply felt social and environmental issues, as if making sure we all knew he wasn’t just some flaky novelist.

He even slipped in a quick lesson on transcendental meditation, describing this state as like “scuba diving in warm bouillon.” Then he compared it to reading—“the meditative state of Western Society.”

Finally, he got around to the topic I’d been waiting for, though I really didn’t expect he’d have much to say. In his diverse collection of essays and stories, Wampeters, Foma & Grandfalloons, he wrote that “you can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. (This from an avowed atheist.)

He told us there are two main ways to support yourself as a writer: inherit money, or marry a rich person.

He then gave us one of his cardinal rules of revision—throw away the first three pages of any manuscript. It’s just needless introductory clutter.

Stepping to the blackboard, he began to draw graphs illustrating the curvature of various kinds of stories. He was always trying to bring much-needed science to English departments.

At the end of his lecture, commenting on the changing nature of student questions these days, he recalled that back when he was a young man on campus, when the world seemed to be in flames and Europe and Asia were on the verge of being swallowed up by Hitler, the burning question was: “Does penis size really matter?”

Whereas now the question he is asked most frequently is: “Do you use a word processor?” I detected a note of sadness in his voice.

So it goes.

(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this piece first appeared in East Side Monthly, Providence, RI.)

To Procreate, or Not

The_Big_Game_of_Africa_(1910)_-_Black_&_White_RhinosA female white rhino, on average, can produce 11 offspring during her lifetime. Who knows how many more are sired by the male rhino … or Mick Jagger, for that matter. A nine-banded armadillo can produce 54, while lemmings and rabbits can produce hundreds. Spreading your genes around is the first rule of life. From an evolutionary standpoint, I’m a complete failure.

The closest I ever got to procreating was in my early twenties when the young woman I was dating and hoped to marry asked me pointblank if I wanted to have children. Yes, I told her, of course. I even convinced myself that I really did. Men will do anything to get a woman into bed.

Fortunately for both of us, she saw through me (the fact that at the time I was employed in a pet shop, dreaming about all the successful books I would write, may have also made her think twice about my future financial prospects). We went our separate ways, sparing me not only thousands of dollars on an engagement ring worthy of my potential fiancé’s expensive tastes, but the inconceivable tragedy of my becoming a parent.

Growing up, I never thought much about having kids. I just didn’t see it as a life goal, the way some people have always known that they wanted to be parents. I want exactly seven—three boys and three girls and one … well, whatever the Good Lord gives us—dealer’s choice.

Occasionally I caught myself thinking about what it might be like. Taking my little boy or girl hiking. Trying to explain the mysteries of sex or how to fry an egg. Passing on my genes and values to some little person with maybe the same blue eyes and big ears, who would for a time worship the ground I walk on and demand all my waking moments, then completely ignore me in her teens, and later call me a terrible drunken monster when she wrote her memoir at 32.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, over half of all U.S. citizens 18 to 40 already have kids, and even the 40% who don’t still hope to have them someday. Only six percent of this group do not want to have any children, under any circumstances. Seems I’m in the minority.

But at least among the 75 million or so millennials in this country, I have company. According to a recent Cassandra report, fully a third of them do not want kids. Many see this as a deliberate lifestyle choice or not wanting to take on the significant responsibilities that go with parenting. And they don’t seem at all worried about what people will think. Gotta love those millennials.

Of course, if your spouse or significant other really wants kids, it’s hard to say no. I could very well have ended up reproducing, whether I wanted to or not, had I not had the incredible good fortune of meeting and marrying my one and only wife, Josie. She never wanted kids, either. How lucky was that!

I realize that, if every human on the planet shared my views, we would soon go extinct, which might not be a bad idea, considering how our species has totally messed up the planet. We’re not exactly the pinnacle of evolution. We’ve had long enough to change our ways. Why not put some other species, preferably with more intelligence, say ravens, elephants, or even white rhinos, in control of things? The earth would do just fine without us, as it has for billions of years.

Baby naked mole rat

Could be I’m just lacking a baby gene. While other people gush about how cute the new baby is, I’m heading for the door, especially if pictures are involved. The only thing worse than kiddie pictures are dog pictures. Let me know how the kid (or dog) turns out at 21, then we’ll talk. And face it, some babies are about as cute as a newborn naked mole rat.

I could blame my attitude on my maternal grandmother, whom I adored, having spent many idyllic early days on her farm. I remember her warning me how the world was getting worse every day and never to bring kids into this world. Of course, she could have been just tired of putting up with all her own kids’ crap—she had four—or with me, for that matter. I was always getting into trouble, shooting fish and frogs in her pond with my BB gun or cutting down trees in the woods with my ax and leaving three-foot-tall stumps (well, she did ask me to clear out some of the shrubs and trees encroaching on the field).

Not that it’s likely, but I can think of several good reasons why I shouldn’t procreate. First of all, my wife still doesn’t want to. And I doubt very much if she would approve of me spreading my seed around, even if it might potentially benefit the human gene pool. It also sounds like a lot of work, and would impinge on my afternoon naptime.

Second, if I ever did have a kid—perish the thought—I would undoubtedly be a terrible father, the kind who thinks the only good music is classic rock and embarrasses his kids by continuing to wear in public tight Rolling Stones T-shirts over his advancing pot belly.

Finally, there are plenty of people who still want to have kids, as well as plenty who have them accidentally. There are far too many of us here already, with more on the way. As I see it, I’m doing my bit for the planet. The two, four, six (hey, why not twelve, as long as we’re being hypothetical?) kids Josie and I might have had are a counterbalance to those being born. Plus I’ve kept my genes out of the gene pool, which on further reflection is probably a good thing. One Gene is quite enough.

 

The Big Questions

Auguste_Rodin-The_Thinker-Legion_of_Honor-Lincoln_Park-San_FranciscoIs the universe infinite, or do you come to a big wall with a sign that reads “End of the Road?” What is the nature of time, and can you get overtime? Is there life after death, and whatever happened to this one? What is truth, and how do I get some?

These are the questions I love to ask, which explains why I don’t get invited to a lot of cocktail parties. I mean, you can’t go up to someone you’ve just met and blurt out, “Why do we exist?” Social etiquette requires that you at least lead up to such questions with “So how do you like this weather?” or “What have you done with your face?” (OK, this last one may not be appropriate, but aren’t you dying to know?)

Being a geek, I especially enjoy the big science questions. What is consciousness, for example, and how do I know that I have it? Yes, I have this brain and all those neurons and stuff, but how does that translate into an awareness that someone is staring at my breasts or unzipped fly?

Or what makes us human? We know that other animals also use tools, language, and recognize themselves in mirrors. We share 99% of the same genome as a chimpanzee. So what makes us so special? Personally, I think it’s our ability to use credit.

Is there more than one universe? Just when I think I’ve got a handle on how vast our universe is, some physicists propose that we might actually live in a multiverse. There could be all kinds of universes—here, there, everywhere—constantly popping into being through something called “eternal chaotic inflation,” which sounds like a perpetual string of gas attacks. There could be zillions of different universes. Maybe there’s one where I have an exact twin, only he’s rich and famous, with six-pack abs, and can recite all the words to the song “Louie Louie.” Or there’s one where you can always get what you want.

Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by questions about existence. I wake up and look in the mirror and see this face staring back at me, like some freak of nature. An assemblage of genes, bones, and tissues, I know that I am the unique result of a union between egg and sperm and millions of years of evolution. My thoughts identify with this thing in the mirror. Yet all of a sudden it seems odd to me that I should be here at all. What a twisted series of events it had to be that brought forth a ridiculous creature like me.

The animal books I read as a kid didn’t help. I’m not talking about Peter Rabbit or Winnie-the-Pooh. I’m talking about actual animals. Certain pictures terrified me. I remember a photo of a stuffed fruit bat that scared me silly. It seemed to leer back at me from the page. The more books I read, the worse it got. Pangolins, platypuses, star-nosed moles, giraffes, okapis, giant isopods, aye ayes, blob fish, naked mole rats, narwhals, and rhinoceri—they all seemed too bizarre to be real. How could such creatures possibly exist in the same world I inhabit? Nature must be insane.

Indeed, why should I or anything exist at all? To not exist sounds much easier. It certainly takes less energy. Some days, merely existing is all I can manage.

Some say there’s a reason for existence. We’re here to praise God, Allah, or Whatever. We’re here because a divine force willed the universe into being. We’re here because of the Big Bang. We’re here out of pure luck that matter and anti-matter didn’t cancel each other out at the beginning of time. We’re here because the economy needs more consumers.

Of course, it could be all an illusion. How do you really know you exist? Maybe we’re all just part of a story endlessly played out in some computer game. Though it may seem real to you, you may be nothing more than a made up character. René Descartes famously declared, “I think, therefore I am.” But just because you think you exist doesn’t necessarily make it so.

And what’s so great about existing? True, there are many advantages. Existence can be rather nice, if you can afford it. But you also have to go out and kill something to eat, get a job, reproduce, fight traffic jams, and pay taxes, unless you’re a rhino, in which case someone will take your horns instead.

The worst part is, it all comes to an end. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a mushroom, redwood tree, sea slug, gorilla, or frazzled commuter, the result is always the same. One day you’re here, the next day you’re not. There is no escape clause and no returns allowed. Even stars and galaxies die in the course of their vast cosmic lifetimes.

At least your atoms will still be around. Who knows where they might end up someday— perhaps in a whale or an eagle, or some wholly new life form. Wouldn’t that be something? No matter how useless your life may seem at times, it’s nice to know your atoms will serve a constructive purpose in the future.

Our universe itself may die one day. I imagine it would be pretty exciting to watch, though hard to get a good seat.

For now, though, I must bid you all goodnight and go to bed. Existence is exhausting.

 

The Unillustrated Man

DSCN0535Call me a freak. Not a hippie freak, eco-freak, or Jesus freak, just a plain old freak. You see, I don’t have a tattoo. Yesterday I saw a geezer (i.e., someone older than I) downtown—he had to be at least 97—with a big red heart on his neck and the word “Alice,” which I thought was kind of sweet until I noticed just above it a raised hand holding a dagger. Some guys never get over their divorces.

A recent Harris poll found that 21% of U.S. adults now have a tattoo, and among the younger crowd it’s almost twice that. It won’t be long before Pope Francis has one—I suspect he secretly does—and there’ll be no unadorned skin left on the planet. Freaks like me will be eyed suspiciously. Why doesn’t that man have a tattoo? Is he trying to make a statement? It’s un-American, I tell you!

It’s not that I don’t think tattoos are cool. I am fascinated by the diverse and creative ways we set ourselves apart from the herd. When I see some young dude with green-streaked purple hair wearing barbed wire around his neck, twenty pounds of nose, ear, lip, and throat jewelry, and his skin adorned with the full complement of body art, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. How difficult it must be these days to achieve that perfect rebellious, insolent, don’t-give-a-damn look. It’s all about making a statement.

When I was a kid, the only tattoos I remember were those on the arms of my two ex-navy uncles. The rule was, if you were in the navy, jail, a carnival, or a gang you got one. But then, during the 60’s, tattoos really took off in this country as part of a cultural reaction to the values of the white, straight, middle class. Pretty soon, tattoos weren’t just for stoned out rock musicians or starving artists. Middleclass and upper class folks started sporting them. The rest is history. The prevailing culture simply swallowed up the protest symbol. Tattoos are now just something to do. When you see a tattooed politician, stock broker or brain surgeon riding to work on his Harley, you know the tattoo has lost any shock impact it once possessed.

It won’t be long before the tattoo gestapos find me. They’ll haul me into some back alley tattoo parlor and force me to undergo body art, and probably some piercing, too.
So I’ve decided to be proactive. Rather than allowing them to put some tacky tattoo of Mickey Mouse, Miley Cyrus, or worse on my arm, I’ll have a design all worked out. That way, when they come crashing through the front door I’ll have something to show them. They might go easier on me, knowing that I’ve put a little thought into it.

Being a poet, I thought I could have one of my little poems inserted under my skin in tasteful script, on a part of my body normally exposed. I don’t mind sharing my poems, but having to take my shirt off to let someone read a poem is too great a price to ask of my art. Of course, there’s always the risk of would-be poetry critics coming up to me and provoking a scene. It doesn’t rhyme. How it can it be poetry? He obviously took that line straight out of Frost.

Perhaps I could reproduce some famous paintings for my body art. I can see one arm sporting Monet’s Les Quatre Arbres (Poplars), while the other features Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. On my neck (my legs are too hairy) I could have Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. That would get some attention. I do worry, however, that the aging canvas upon which they are painted would sag and fade with time, requiring extensive restoration.

I need a bold statement, something that will really stand out. Since I live in Arizona, why not get a brand burned into my flesh. It needs to be simple and concise, something that tells who I am—maybe a little heart with the words “Irreverent Infidel” or “In Silliness We Trust.” For once in my life, I might actually get ahead of the curve. These days, it’s all about branding.

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