Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Death as a Way of Life

Having anticipated spending the weekend engaged in tea-leaf reading with harbingers of Mr. Death, I was surprised to discover instead living as a way of dying, in a way that applies to all of us. We treat death as Benjamin Franklin's joke, something unpleasant and unmentionable, rather than as the useful nudge to live, just as taxes are a necessary means to share.

Perhaps it helps that I am a mere four years away from the age at which my father died, although I am a comfortable 35 years from my father's father's age of demise.

My father died "young," or so his contemporaries said. I was just about to become a father for the first time and my middle-aged father did not seem young at all. Now it he seems to have been too young to go; at nearly his age of death, I still have some living in me. I think.

My grandfather, on the other hand, voluntarily decided not to undergo a third operation that might -- or might not -- have extended his life an uncertain span of time. He knew it was his time to die and given his advanced age nearly everyone, save for those of us who loved him and still miss him, would agree.

Most people I have known who were aware of death's impending arrival at old age were ready, almost anxious for it come, to be done with physical decline and pain, to end resistance to nature's course. This past weekend, however, I came across what seemed to me an entirely new, Zen-like approach.

A sick person within range of a reasonable age for a man to die -- no matter how unreasoning death will always feel to those who have loved him -- had given his family, and perhaps himself, a few scares. The fear and shock was perhaps enough that he seemed to embrace his fate -- one that's not imminent, yet feels closer than the demise of his youngest child -- with a joy and matter-of-fact calm that seemed to imbue his household with a way of living that is very much in the moment.

Because I am closer in age to the person who is ill than I am to my grandfather's age of death, the picture I took in seemed a reality not to be ignored: this is more or less how I will be when I get closer to my turn.

Then I was struck by how the healthier living, those whose dying seemed likely to stretch out for decades beyond even my time, were living day to day, even with an awareness of Mr. Death they had not had before.

There were tears and laughter and worry, of course, but fundamentally, as a grounding of all that was going on there was an air of letting go, of living to the fullest in tiny ways, of a normalcy that might have seemed unnatural were it not so wise.

Why not? We are all dying. If only we were more forcefully aware of it!

I could walk out and get hit by the proverbial truck. I might have a deadly disease incubating in me as I write. My body might just tire out inexplicably one night.

Am I ready for that? Have I let go of my resentments and angers and worries and fears, my navel gazing and self-pity, to replace them with a serious but not humorless sense of purpose and focus on the things that, to the best of my knowledge, are important?

It seemed, and perhaps I idealize, that the household of the man I went to see was trying to let go and live. Or rather, to take on dying as a way of life.

If I were on my deathbed -- or my death computer chair -- that is how I would like life around me to be. Indeed, I am in death computer chair and I feel a greater urgency to focus on what is important.

Excuse me, then, I have to go do some work.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Children or Dogs?

Perhaps it is the bruising cold that sharpens the critical faculty, but I see around me a depressing lack of discriminating judgment in distinctions that aren't so fine or difficult to make. Let me offer two instances.

Case #1 -- Surgery for Pets

It seems the past few weeks have been the time for pets to get expensive surgery that society does not feel fit to grant to the 40 million Americans (many of them children) who simply cannot get any kind of preventive health care because they are uninsured.

One person is spending $1,400 on a cat's operation. Fellow-blogger Julie has had a dog diagnosed with cancer undergo surgery. Ever heard of putting an animal out of its misery with a shotgun? (Truth in advertising: I have never even touched a shotgun. But you get the idea.)

When I raised the question of a hierarchy of values -- among them, people before pets -- in a comment in Julie's blog, mommyblogger Dharmamama weighed in with an out-of-context biblical quote to propose that no one is facing a choice between pets and children. (This amid an ocean of there-theres and poor-yous.)

Julie, for her part, threatened to censor me. Never mind that child homelessness has not quite been eradicated driving distance from her cancer-operated dog. To Julie's credit, the next day she aptly called the dog-cancer post a "pity party."

We all feel our hangnails are worse than a famine in India. But they're not in fact, in truth and in reality.

Case #2 "He Crossed the Line"

Heard from a blonde, white capped pedestrian commuter on her cell phone: "Brian, he f*cking crossed the line."

A man other than the patient Brian, whom she "f*cking" did not know well at all, had apparently invited this pretty, well-dressed but potty-mouthed cell-phone-toting young woman to a "f*cking" strip club. Then, some prodigious (and presumably expensive) amount of "f*cking" drinking had taken place. All ending up at his or her "f*cking" place in the middle of the "f*cking" night, where alcoholic intoxication lowered inhibitions to the point that clothes were discarded amid "f*cking" amorous activities (which, one imagines, were headed toward f*cking). Finally, some "f*cking" Maginot Line was crossed.

And all downtown, or at least everyone within the radius of a city block, heard about it.

The cognitive dissonance in this conversation begins with the understanding that in 2008 everyone knows that yelling into cell phones does not improve communication, any more than loud, slow diction and adding an "o" at the end of every word translates English into Italian. Certainly, yelling out one's angst at a line "crossed" when one is crossing so many socially accepted lines concerning public comportment is internally self-contradicting.

As is almost everything else in this overheard conversation. What delicate sensibility belongs to a young woman who has to f*cking cuss every other word? Where's the common sense in going with a little-known man anywhere, let alone a strip club and a private residence where intimate behavior may ensue?

If one can be held legally liable for driving drunk, can't one be held at least morally responsible for drinking to the point that one disregards the normal inhibitions about placing oneself in a situation of nudity with a stranger?

None of this suggests that the male stranger was therefore authorized to treat the unnamed bodily territory in question the way Germany twice treated Belgium in the 20th century. However, it does suggest that the frontier crossing was a folie à deux, as in the number of people it takes to tango.

So, what's more important: children or dogs, morning-after rescuing of self-respect or circumspect civility the evening before leading to a better morning after? Some people seem not to know the difference.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Unblocking the Writer

If you've noticed, I have been a bit blog blocked. Everything I considered writing about seemed trite, or said, or a clichè. So now I'm taking a new tack in hopes that the blogging juices will once again flow freely.

Beginning on Monday, Jan. 21, and through the rest of the year, I will do my version of the Times 365 blog meme. This is a project started by a blogger to mark his 40th year by remembering 365 people who left an impression, one day per person.

My fellow blogger Schmutzie has been doing this with startling results. She posts 50 words every day. She has joined x365. Being a less than compulsive individualist you would not want to have on your team, I'm making up my own rules for my own people project.

I will post one 30-word note on a real person I have met, from Monday through Friday each week, for 250 days, which I calculate will take me to the end of this year. Moreover, I will attempt to recall people in order of appearance in my life. (Got my numbers wrong, think I met you before I did? Sue me.)

I will, however, make every attempt to keep appropriately private the actual identities of those about whom I write.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

To Want, To Need, Perchance To Love

With only 14 shopping days until Christmas, a correspondent inquired as to the difference between needing, wanting and loving anything from a PC game to a trip to the Bahamas to true love and to a peaceful world. The season of shopping and greed ... um ... peace and love ... is over, but not the question.

As I see it, we need very little. Water, air, food, shelter from the elements and clothing. If we do not wish to survive, we do not even need these.

My correspondent, who is French, of course, says we need sex. I'd question that. I'd agree to the stipulation that we probably need some form of affection in our lives.

Mais, oui, we often want sex and want sex often. But need? What will happen without sex? We'll be a little irritable? We'll squirm? We'll soil our bedsheets? That's about all I can think will happen. Not exactly the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

We want everything under the sun, but especially what we see others enjoying (in commercials). We want convenience and well-being and ease, but we also want the things that will make us feel so much more powerful, handsomer, desirable. Hence the market for sports cars.

Want is our problem. We desire much we do not need for our survival or even our well-being, whereas necessity, true need, is the mother of invention. The less we need, the more we merely want, the less creative and more consuming we become.

Is it absolutely necessary to leave so many office buildings lit up at night, sucking in energy for no one to enjoy? Of course not.

Do we need purified water in bottles? Are purifiers? Do we need meat every day, three full square meals, ample desserts? Do we need a closet with umpteen pairs of shoes (OK, women do), suits, shirts, jackets and coats? Do we need a home with several regularly unused bathrooms, a yard, a two-car garage?

Of course not. Yet that's the normal North American dream.

I spent the bulk of my adulthood in a two-bedroom apartment that was at maximum legal occupancy (two adults, two children), without television or a car. I may have taken the odd vacation here and there, but I spent many of them on my balcony, reading detective novels in long summer days.

I was the "poorest" in my leafy neighborhood of million-dollar homes of Washington wonks and journalists. In the global village, however, I was undoubtedly a potentate, what with running water and electricity (not to mention a computer). About four-fifths of humanity do not have any version of these "necessities."

At the risk of sounding self-satisfied (I now have a TV, a car and an under-occupied apartment), the way of life into which I once stumbled was modest enough that the world -- and I mean every citizen in the globe -- could conceivably aspire to live as I did without a huge drain on resources. A (much needed) redistribution would have done the trick.

Sell one CEO's Gulfstream Jet (about $57 million) and you could get four-bedroom apartments for several African villages. Hell, several U.S. towns.

But -- aha! -- who's going to be the first to step forward? How do we let go of our wants and focus more precisely on our real needs?

For that we need love. The love we all want, the love we all want to give and are sometimes too scared to part with, the love others need and deserve.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Pornographic or Risqué?

Savia's recent post on the joys of a toy for gals and related matters has set off an e-mail controversy: is the Savia Bella blog pornographic or merely risqué?

I only cyberknow Savia through Schmutzie, another cyber-acquaintance. They both strike me as charming women too old to be my daughters, but too young to date, who are articulate about some poignant experiences -- and occasionally a little edgy, saucy and, yeah, not quite what you would read out loud to your great-aunt Julia.

They are articulate and funny and painfully honest and Saskatchewanian -- I've never met anyone like them in real life. For all I know, they may be one 45-year-old overweight, beer delivery guy in Yonkers. But I doubt it.

I found Schmutzie's Milkmoney ... goodness, I don't remember how! Someone's blog roll, I'm sure. I was amazed to discover someone blogging about such serious setbacks as being diagnosed with cancer (and beating it!) with compassion-evoking lightness. This is how I would like to get cancer (knock on wood) if I had to.

Then Savia guest-posted on Milkmoney about her incestuous-but-not-quite adventures with her hunky Italian cousins. She revealed to me the female side of sexual temptation and limits in a way I had never quite encountered before, in a language franker than any woman I know uses, or has used, at least since college.

Part of the allure is hearing the in-your-face raw sexuality of the younger generation, of course. But another part is that it is literate, delicate and well short of raunchy.

I would argue that it is not pornographic. To me pornography aims to titillate, to profit, to manipulate the hormonal imagination. Savia seems merely to speak her mind (and body) in a "just us girls" tone that makes all of it very natural.

We all like sex. Want some. Know that some people are off limits. Would rather focus on just one, but are maybe less virginal than the nuns said we should be.

To my mind, Savia (occasionally) holds up this aspect of life for all to titter a little but ultimately enjoy in a good, clean sense. And besides, she writes about any number of things, such as the death of a loved one's parent or getting soaked in a London afternoon rain, in ways that are memorable and even moving.

Schmutzie, for her part, may prefer to have the first syllable of her blogging handle pronounced like "smut," but she is delightfully child-like and heart-warmingly adoring of her mate. Even when she's edgy. Sorry, Schmuts.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

USA Number One?

Few recent political events have stayed with me as totalitarian emblems as the sight of a young Republican throng chanting "USA! USA! USA!" Now comes a foreigner questioning how the United States could possibly be no. 1 given an allegedly inferior educational system, which prompts me to ask how the United States got here and what it means for the future of the world.

Of course, it's almost un-American to be as "patriotic" as the young people at the last Republican convention. The USA is historically and essentially a nation of oddballs ornery enough to be embarrassed by orchestrated cheering. True American patriotism has always been best represented by dissenters.

The notion of American empire, at last openly acknowledged by those in power, is also at odds with democracy. All empires have been autocratic and the imperial behavior of Americans abroad is often grossly at odds with the national democratic vocation: our diplomats and soldiers have repeatedly shown they want to force others to adopt what we think is best for them, like it or not.

Part of the reason for this is the mistaken belief that the ascendancy of the United States is an inevitable result of a superior culture or form of government, when in fact it is a major historical accident. Had the European powers -- in what Churchill aptly described as a thirty years' total war with a long truce -- avoided reducing each other to sheer rubble by 1945, the United States would have remained the ungainly, greedy older child of the British Empire and no more.

U.S. hegemony is merely the result of a large, untouched industrial base filling a global vacuum half a century ago. I have already pointed out that American military prowess was of as dubious value in the 20th century as it is in this one (see here).

The real source of U.S. power has always been primarily economic.

This has involved huge foreign inputs, in terms of labor, investment and creativity -- rather than the much ballyhooed "know how." We tend to forget, for example, that without a Scottish inventor, immigrants from Ireland and China, and hefty British investment in the 19th century, there would never have been a continental U.S. railroad network, the dominant interstate form of transportation until Eisenhower's highway program. The same could be said about any number of major U.S. economic projects.

Moreover -- and this foreigners often miss -- U.S. economic strength lies primarily in its dynamic and large internal market, rather than external trade. This is how the United States remains much more powerful economically than China, which is several times larger in many senses.

Indeed, this is why, should the United States decline, as is historically inevitable, I think China is unlikely to fill the gap -- the People's Republic is a vast underdeveloped heartland that faces the world with the mask of its glittering coastal regions.

What the U.S. ascendancy has meant for the world and still can be its enduring legacy, is the leveling effect of a relatively transparent economy and a stable but adversarial political system.

In sum, the United States is not no. 1 in brains, brawn or brass. The U.S. originality is an economic and political constitution for "men who disagree," as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, one that is potentially open to improvement.