Sunday, January 15, 2023

THE FUTURE’S NOT OURS TO SEE

 

As I get older, I spend a lot of time thinking about things that I didn’t have time to think about when I was younger. Either that, or maybe they just didn’t seem very important back then. It’s funny though, at this stage of the game, it seems as if what people refer to as “the little things” take on much more importance than before, when I was still nursing a set of “priorities for the future”.

I guess the key word here is “future”. When you first realize you’re getting older, that word haunts you for a while. If you’re fifty-ish, say, you might lie awake some nights thinking things like, “I’ve got more life behind me than ahead of me,” or, “I wanted to be so much closer to my goals than I am right now,” or, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I advance? I’m so worried it’s not going to happen for me.” Although you may think you’re getting old at that age, believe me, those are the thoughts and concerns of a still young person.

The secret you learn as you advance ten or twenty years more from that stage—or, at least, the secret I’ve learned…sort of—is that that kind of thoughts tend to be a monumental waste of time, a futile concern. Wondering “what’s going to become of me” is a fool’s errand. What and where you are is all you’ve got or all you’ll ever have. The only way to know the future is to live it. It’s the only way to know “what life will bring”. You can’t even be sure of the future five minutes from now.

The first time I gave any thought to the futility of “futurizing” was actually when I was still quite young. It was back in the late seventies when I first read anything by famed self-help author Wayne Dyer. I suppose his admonitions about not wasting your present worrying about the future—which he hammered home in his first best-selling hit, Your Erroneous Zones, as well as in every subsequent book that he wrote—struck home with me because I was living in a very dangerous environment at the time and was really at risk of having my life cut short. I was an opposition journalist under a harsh dictatorial regime and those marked as “enemies of the State” weren’t apt to find a life-insurance firm that would risk covering them. But once democracy returned and the danger was over with, my attention span for Dr. Dyer’s sage advice tended to dwindle.

It’s hard to think that way when you’re younger. Sure, life would be a lot more fun and more stress-free if we did. But when you’re young, it’s impossible not to think about the future. Chances are, you’ll have one—a future I mean—even if it isn’t guaranteed. So if you didn’t make plans, if you subscribed to a radically existentialist view and only saw the here and now as “real”, it would be hard to get anything done. If the future is non-existent, if the here and now are all there is—and again, they are—why would anyone bother going to college, learning a skill, studying for a career or trying to be upwardly mobile in their chosen field, or in whatever field they happen to stumble into?

I mean, of course, there’s nothing wrong with having ambitious goals and going after them the best way you know how while you’re young. Anybody who isn’t goal-driven when they’re young can’t expect to be “successful” when they’re older. But that’s all relative too, because there’s nothing broader or more subjective than the meaning of “success” for each individual. And even if young people are focused on career goals, they’ll lead a lot happier life if they also manage not to lose track of the present, not to let their concerns ruin today at the service of some possible but also clearly non-existent future.

Success can, and usually does, mean money, because that’s the society we’re brought up in. If you don’t have money—at least enough to get along, whatever that might mean to each of us—in Western society it’s really hard to have a life, or at least a life that most of us would want. But there are those—specifically talented and/or enlightened folks, as I see them—for whom “success” is all about accomplishment totally disconnected from money. It’s all about excelling at something, at being, in the broadest sense of the word, an “artist” at whatever it is they do. Oddly enough, these are sometimes the very people who, now and then, end up making a lot of money at whatever their craft or skill might be, without ever focusing on wealth as the prime goal.     

There are, however, some people—lucky people to my mind—for whom the goal is no goal at all. To just live life to the fullest and be happy at whatever they happen to be doing at any point in time. And if they aren’t happy doing whatever “it” happens to be, simply quitting and trying something else for a while. These are the people who often end up being jacks (or jills) of all trades, or vagabond world travelers who make their living however they can, because the goal for them is to keep moving and to see everything they possibly can in life before their shadows set them free.

It wasn’t until I met a few people like that, people just more concerned with instant happiness and living the present than with fretting about the future, that I finally understood that common Christian teaching that we heard again and again growing up but that wasn’t the way any so-called Christians I came across actually lived their lives. It was that New Testament verse about “Why trouble yourself about clothing? Look at the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin.” It was like, hey, quit sweating stuff that, in the long-run, in the big picture, is usually little more than a fleeting chimera. Things that might happen, sure. But things that are no more a sure thing than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Don’t miss out on what you’ve got, by obsessing about what you’re out to get!

I’ve known a few people like that. Very few. People who were focused on the now, not on the what’s to come. And I now think maybe they were always ahead of the curve, when, back in the day, we just thought of them as bohemians, sort of grasshoppers observing the anthill with a sardonic grin, wondering why we ants were striving so. At the time, we figured the last laugh would be ours when winter came. What we were too busy to notice was that winter comes to everyone, at one point or another, and the grasshopper, at least, would have the good times to remember when it did.

My brother Dennis was a guy who loved a good time, a real partier. He loved bars and rock and roll. He loved road trips and golf tours. He enjoyed hanging with his buds. Rock recitals were like catnip for him, and he even volunteered as security for a few of them just to be closer to the stage and to the band.

But he was also a meticulous man, a fretter and a worrier, a perfectionist, and he was seriously driven for most of his life. He worked in retail from age nineteen, climbed to the top of middle management in the region-wide family-owned record store chain he worked for over the course of a couple of decades. He was fully expecting to land a VP post shortly. But suddenly, the owners decided to take the firm public and the new majority shareholders filled upper management with their own people, leaving him stuck in the middle with little chance of any greater promotion.

He could have taken it as the luck of the draw. He even could have seen it as an opportunity. He’d been happy in his several-state district manager’s post, living in Saint Louis, where he was based. He’d made it his city, knew every cool place there was to know, and could easily have stayed on in his post while taking his time to shop for a more upwardly mobile job.

But that wasn’t him. He was devastated. He felt betrayed and hurt, and decided to quit. His marriage of many years also shortly went south, and that only added to his feeling of failure. Now middle-aged, still young, but not really young, he had to start over. He moved back to Ohio, got into a new retail field and started climbing the ladder. But when he graduated from sales to store management, the cruel reality about his likely future seemed to overwhelm him. Who was he kidding? Making a career for yourself at forty-something wasn’t at all like making it at twenty-something.

I tried to convince him that he could do anything he wanted to do. He was smart, educated, effective as a manager. He had a great personality, was handsome and looked great in a suit. Especially his suits, which were never “just suits”. If climbing to the upper rungs of the corporate retail ladder was what he wanted to do, he could surely do it, like he had the last time. But I didn’t figure that was what he wanted to do at all. “You know what you really want,” I said, “is your own business.”

“Yeah, big brother, but I just never had the cojones for that,” he said. “Not that I wouldn’t like to try, but I’m just too scared of everything that could go wrong. I’m great at managing other people’s businesses, but am I ready for one of my own?” He shook his head.

Dennis, starting over at 40-something
But he tried to do what he thought was the next best thing. Bought into a friend’s business. To him, it seemed like a good idea at the time. His high school friend had inherited a family business after his parents retired, but had quickly found that it was one thing to work for his dad and mom, and another to actually run the business himself. The work involved an area of interior design and installation which he knew a great deal about. That’s what he had been in charge of while his parents ran the business. But his mother and father were the ones who had founded and built the business, and the ones who had kept it afloat. Dennis’s friend, for his part, had no management training or experience and, worse still, no real head for business. He ran the business a little like a glorified lemonade stand, grabbing whatever money he needed out of the drawer with little thought as to how he would cover suppliers, utilities, rent, taxes, equipment, and all the other factors that go into keeping a business up and running.

In short, the guy didn’t seem to understand that he was the problem, not the business. He thought maybe it was location that was killing him, so long before he ever brought Dennis in, he had already moved the business from our home town, where his family’s store had been a local icon for decades, to a much bigger and more affluent town forty miles north, where nobody knew him from Adam.   

What my brother was supposed to bring to the mix was his business acumen. Well, that…and his money. Dennis thought maybe this was the challenge he’d been looking for. His friend knew the business and he knew management. Together, they’d have it up and running again in no time. That’s what my brother thought.

What actually happened was that Dennis’s investment in the company ended up being used to fill huge gaps that this friend had been carrying for some time. It didn’t make a dent in terms of improving and expanding operations. So when they decided to do that, his friend’s credit status was in such bad shape that they had to again depend on Dennis’s good name and credit rating to take out a business loan.

In the meantime, his friend kept right on treating the firm as if it were his alone, writing himself checks there was no money for, failing to pay his half of the company debts and further driving the concern toward bankruptcy. After a couple of years, the partnership was dissolved and the friend went on hanging on by his fingernails, leaving Dennis stuck with the task of returning the money borrowed to the bank. It was either that or sacrifice his own credit rating for his friend’s business failure.

In the midst of all this, Dennis was keeping watch over our mother and father. Whitie, our dad, was dying of lung cancer. Dennis was there constantly for our mother, Reba Mae. Whitie died after a four-year battle with his disease. Reba Mae died six months later.

Dennis needed a change. He needed to figure things out. Everything he’d worked and hoped for had vanished like a mirage. He was out of goals and stuck in an on-again-off-again relationship with an unstable woman he probably never should have gotten involved with in the first place. “Her ex is a real nut job,” Dennis told me. “He’s still around. Surfaces now and then. I changed my phone number. I was getting threats.” Then he said, “She says the guy claims she’s the one who drove him crazy. She was crying once and asked if I thought that was true. Did she drive him crazy? I comforted her and said, no, of course it wasn’t her fault. But, you know, now I’m not so sure any more. Maybe he was right.”

He had decided to sell his house in Ohio and move to our parents’ now vacant winter condo in Florida. Once when I was back from my home in Patagonia, he and I were out for a steak and a few drinks at a place we knew in Ocala. Apropos of nothing, he said, “If you could have a do-over, what would you do different?”

I thought about it and said, “Not a lot.” But then I thought about it again and said. “No, let me take that back. True, I’d have done a lot of the things I did, but I’d have done more and I’d have done it sooner. I wouldn’t have stayed in journalism past my prime. I’d have gotten out while I still had a reputation and used that to launch my career as a writer. I never would have quit playing music. I’d have kept on being a drummer in some obscure blues band at night while writing during the day. I’d have better learned how to promote myself and how to make the mid-list as a writer while I was still young. And I probably would have found a way to live part of the year here and part of it in South America.”

Clowning around...but wishing that mic was real
He listened, nodded, drank a shot of Jack he’d ordered and washed it down with some draft. “Sounds like you’ve given it some thought,” he said.

“Not much,” I said. “Just every other day or so.”

There was a pause. Then I said, “How ‘bout you? What would you have done differently?”

He sighed. “I don’t know. I mean, like everything?”

“What would you have wanted to do?” I asked.

His answer was immediate. “Be a front man with a rock and roll band.”

I was surprised. But I shouldn’t have been. Music had always been a huge part of his life. In fact, it was what first attracted him to the record store chain he began working for as a teen. Like writers I knew of whose day job was at a bookstore.  And it was very likely what kept him working for that company for twenty years. It wasn’t his love of retail, as I’d always thought, but his love of music.

In my own case, I’d always loved playing music and writing. But the daily grind, the striving for upward mobility, the struggle to make a good living seems to get in the way when you’re reaching for dreams. I got into journalism to better my writing skills but let the newsroom seduce and then obsess me. Soon, it was more like a bad marriage than a job. Writing stories and books became “a goal for the future”, and playing music would be sorely missed, but who had the time?

Suddenly, I realized that my brother and I had even more in common than either of us had ever realized. We had let “the future” obscure and subjugate the present. It took a long time to realize that this “future” we’d been busy reaching for was never tangible. And in the meantime, the present had been slipping through our fingers.

Dennis died suddenly at fifty-one. But in the two years between our parents’ death and his own, I think he was taking a stab at living in the present. He was still haunted by the bad relationship that he couldn’t seem to let go of, but beyond that, he appeared to have learned to live life as it came.

He was done with business. He drove a school bus down in Marion County, Florida, and in between time, he worked with a skilled ex-con putting up chain-link fencing, or on his own doing landscaping maintenance on the golf course that formed the center of the condo complex where he lived. He also found that a lot of folks there were looking for someone with good taste and skilled hands to help them revamp and repaint their condos, so he started a little one-man business doing that sort of thing as well, and apparently garnered a lot of satisfied customers. He was well-liked and was the new blood on his condo board. He golfed, hung out with friends, partied and quickly became beloved by all of his fellow bus drivers, who were devastated by his untimely death.

Good times with friends in Florida
Dennis’s death haunted me for years. It still does. So much so that it seems like it only happened yesterday, when, in fact, last December marked the seventeenth anniversary of his passing. When he died, several of his bus driver friends came over to his condo where my sister Darla and I were going through his stuff and putting his affairs in order. They asked if they could be of help and told us that they had found homes for our brother’s two pet rabbits and his two birds.

I remained at Dennis’s desk, going through papers and his computer while Darla was off in another part of the apartment with his friends. When I joined them, she said, “You need to hear this.”

“Hear what?” I asked.

Leaning close, out of earshot of the others, she said, “It’s like this urban legend. It made me cry.” Then to a young woman who looked to be grieving more than anyone else, she said, “Would you mind telling my brother what you told me?”

Tears filled the woman’s eyes and she gazed into mine and said, “God, you look so much like him.”

“Yes,” I said, trying to touch a more jovial chord, “but like the extra-extra-large version.”  The others laughed. She didn’t. She seemed to be seeing something the rest of us didn’t.

She said. “Dennis was always helping the rest of us out. He was so nice, and so tidy! He used to carry this bottle of Windex around. He’d wipe down every single window on his bus before he started work in the morning. And sometimes I’d be pulling out while he was finishing up. He would step out and put up his hand for me to stop. He’d jump up on my bumper, spray Windex on my windshield, and wipe it spotless. Then he’d grin at me, wink, give me a thumbs up, and hop down.”

She sniffed. It was like she was seeing him as she told the story. She wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and went on. “Sometimes when we finished for the day, I was in a hurry to get out of there and go pick up my kids. If Dennis saw me, he’d holler, ‘Don’t worry about your windows, I’ll get ‘em,’ because I’d always forget a bunch of the windows open. I’d thank him, he’d say, ‘Not a problem,’ and he’d hop up on my bus and close all the windows for me.”

Again she paused. A couple of tears ran down her face. Then she cleared her throat and went on. “So anyway, we’ve got these security cameras on our buses. They film one day and the next day they record over what was on them twenty-four hours before. We’re supposed to have a look at them at the beginning or end of every day just to make sure there’s nothing going on we should know about and report. Usually, what you’ll see from the day before is sort of a mess.  I mean, you know, kids getting on and getting off, laughing, shoving each other and fooling around, the usual stuff.  

“So the other morning, I get on my bus and look at the video playback. It’s weird. There’s nothing happening. Just the empty bus and no kids. But this time what I see is a guy get on the bus with his cap pulled low over his eyes. And he goes real quick down the aisle to the back of the bus and, from there, starts slamming shut the windows I’d forgotten open the evening before. Then he comes up to the camera lens, looks right into it, grins and gives me a little wave. It’s your brother. Then he’s off the bus and gone, and the picture goes blank.”

She gets choked up and we all wait for the punchline as she regains her composure. “Thing is,” she says, “I now know that by the time that was recorded, Dennis was dead already, here in his apartment!” 

I’ve always been what I like to call “a hopeful agnostic.” I’m not at all sure I believe in any of this. But I’d like to. I’d like to think the story Dennis’s friend told me was not a figment of her imagination. I’d like to think there’s no logical explanation for it, that maybe he just still got a kick out of partying and horseplay, that he still had that ornery prankster’s spontaneous sense of humor that I’d always loved about him. Mostly, I just want to believe he was happy at heart. Happy to have been here and just as happy to move on.

 

Friday, December 30, 2022

FAST AWAY THE OLD YEAR PASSES…FA-LA-LA-LA-LA…ETC.

 I can recall when New Year’s Eve was a festive occasion. That was back in another life. Back when some dangerous years of my youth, in which I thought it was unlikely I’d ever see old age, were over. Suddenly, I was middle-aged—young, but not that

young. It was, however, a rather joyous time in which I saw the future stretching far in front of me, over some endless horizon. A time of lofty dreams and ambitious goals. A time in which, to paraphrase an Eagles lyric, I couldn’t “give the reason why I should ever want to die.” 

Back then, it seemed like I might just live forever. Like I could do whatever I wanted. Entertain any abuse, accomplish any feat, because nothing could hurt me. I was indestructible. My powers of recovery enormous. My resilience exceptional. Of course, even back then, another pesky lyric was echoing somewhere at the back of my brain. A Cat Stevens stanza that went, “And though you want to last forever /You know you never will /You know you never will / And the goodbye makes the journey harder still.”

Thing is, it seemed like that, the end of “forever”, was nowhere in sight. That it might come “someday”, but in the meantime, it simply didn’t exist. Life wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t everything I wanted it to be, but it was good. And I could convince myself that “someday”, I would achieve everything I wanted to achieve. Be a smashing success at what I had fancied was my destiny.

Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between being old and, well, not old. The fact that there comes a time when you can no longer ignore the passage of time. A time when, try as you might, you can no longer convince yourself that you have a future. No expectation beyond the here and now.

I get a double whammy every year, now. My birthday and year’s end in a single month. It can’t help but keep you focused on the passage of time and your own mortality. That said, while I indeed have a few old-age complaints, I wake up most days feeling like I still have a lot of thread left on the spool. To keep that frame of mind is fairly easy when, like me, you have nothing really major wrong with you, even if you’re exhibiting a “battle scar” or two. But most days, if I practice abstraction, I can still convince myself I am only as old as I allow myself to feel.

That’s an absolute fallacy, of course, since the statistics don’t bear it out. Nor would my cardiologist. But there are always exceptions, people—even if only a few—who live happy, well and strong into their late eighties and early nineties. What’s to keep me from being one of those? Why couldn’t I, perhaps, still have a ten, fifteen or twenty-year writing career ahead of me? A career as long as the one I had as a journalist, or the one I’ve had as a free-lance translator, editor and ghostwriter. Those are the kind of thoughts that keep a spring in my step and the steel in my will to hang onto mind and body and not let them flag. Come on, my boys! Keep up, if you know what’s good for you! Movement is life. Get up and get moving, I tell myself, because it’s proof of life.

In Buenos Aires, I have an old friend (but don’t let her hear me say that!), who is only slightly younger than I am. But she’s always talking about projects for the future, about getting herself a van or motor home and living in it, traveling from place to place forever. Or about becoming a chef and running a great restaurant’s kitchen, or about moving back to the Canary Islands, where she lived for ten years many moons ago, and running a hotel kitchen there. She gets upset if I talk about our age and remind her that we’re no spring chickens. She might even say something like, “I’m not old. Not yet!”

“Well,” I say, “we’re hardly middle-aged anymore…I mean, unless you plan to live to be a hundred and forty.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” she asks defiantly. “Lots of people live to be a hundred. Why not a hundred and twenty, or a hundred and forty. It could happen, right?”

I just nod, say, “Maybe you’re right. I’m just being negative. Sorry.” I bite my tongue not to ask her sarcastically if she remembered to get the five hundred thousand-mile warranty on the two hip replacements she had a couple of years back.  

No matter what tricks I might use to convince myself of my powers of longevity, in the end, it is what it is. And the fact that the mortality statistics are no longer on one’s side can be a liberating thing. I may no longer have a horizonless future stretching before me, but I do have right now. And if there’s one thing that’s great about being “elderly” (geezus, but I hate that word!), it’s that the time you’ve got belongs to you. Today stretches before me the way that near-endless future used to. But now I have no obligations but the ones I decide to accept. So, today is all mine to do with as I please. Or to do nothing, if that’s what I should decide—although that rarely happens.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t niggling reminders. Like, for instance, having gotten through a recent eye surgery and recovered almost fully the sight in that eye, I right away went to renew my driver’s license. It’s been expired for the last two months. But I’ve been driving anyway (please don’t tell anybody!), because while I could see well enough with my good eye to drive before the surgery, I would never have passed the eye test for a new license, since you have to be at least 20-20 in one eye and 10-20 in the other, and I wasn’t.

Anyway, there’s always a whole rigmarole to renewing your license in Argentina. This has been the case ever since the central government rescinded the right of provincial and municipal administrations to issue their own licenses and brought highway law and licensing under federal purview. That happened the time before last that I renewed. That time they gave me a new federal license and all I had to do was show up within a month after the expiration of my old municipal license. I also had to pass a physical and psychological test before getting the new license. That one was good for five years.

The next time I went to renew, however, there were new rules. First, I was over sixty-five (but not yet seventy), so the license was only renewed for three years. I also had to retake the driving test and, before doing that, take the physical and psych exams. That time they also required a certificate from traffic court saying I had no outstanding tickets or infractions. And, the car I was taking the exam in had to first pass a thorough vehicle inspection.

This time it’s more of the same. Early last week I started the process at the DMV, then went to traffic court and got my certificate saying I had no tickets or infractions outstanding. Yesterday, I scrambled before the year-end holiday to get a psych test, hearing test, eye test, blood pressure reading and medical interview.

The day before, I drove out to the technical verification course and asked for an appointment. Have to return for vehicle inspection next Thursday. Without that, even though I’ll pass my driving test next Tuesday (at 7 a.m. which means leaving home by six), they won’t give me my license.

I worry about this the same way I worry about the physical tests they run on me. We’ll take the test in my wife’s Renault Clio, but both of our vehicles are as much senior citizens as we are. The Clio turned twenty-five this year (bought it brand new in ‘97) and my Toyota Hilux truck is about to turn twenty-eight. We take good care of both, but extra special care of the Clio since it’s Virginia’s car. But although it’s in really good shape “for its age” and although it’s a really robust little car to start with, a vehicle that old is no more likely in car years to get a completely clean bill of health than I am in human years at seventy-three.

That said, it passed with flying colors three years ago. Hopefully it will again. The muffler’s been a little cranky and grumbling around when we’re out on the road lately, so, just in case, I also took time yesterday to go to the muffler shop and have the muffler and tailpipe changed. An ounce of prevention…

All of this I can take in stride. It’s all part of the rich tapestry that makes up Argentina’s legendary bureaucracy—what my late sister-in-law used to refer to as “the Soviet”. But the cruelest cut of all was when they told me I’d have to do all of this once a year from now on. Seeming to want to be humiliated, being a proverbial glutton for punishment, I made the mistake of asking why. The answer was immediate and anesthesia-free, and said with a combination of disbelief at my naïveté for asking and of pity for my predicament (because no one young ever thinks he or she will ever be old): “Because you’re over seventy.”

Try as you might to ignore this obvious fact, to get up feeling you’re as strong and capable and “together” as ever, when a third party points it out, rubs your nose in it, as it were, and goes as far as to tell you that, no matter how good you feel “for your age”, you can be legally discriminated against simply because you’ve reached a certain stage in life, that you can, in a word, be “protected” from yourself and have others be “protected” from you, it hurts. It hurts no matter how strong a stuff you’re made of.

But life, fortunately, goes on. When this process is finally over with next week, I’ll be able to forget about it until the end of next year. And once I shake it off, I’ll once again be able to get up in the morning and pretend I’ve still got all the time and freedom in the world.

Some weeks are better than others. Some days are brighter. That’s a fact of life. And in the end, there is still always something to celebrate as the old year ends and the new one begins. If nothing else, that we’re still here to see it and to experience whatever it might have to offer for as long as we manage to keep waking up every day. In the end, that’s the miracle. That, after all these years, all the miles, all the danger, all the close calls and hard times, the illnesses and recoveries, the good, for me, still far outweighs the bad.

Today has been yet another one that I could call my own. Tomorrow will take care of itself. In the meantime, I’m still here, and loving it.  



    

 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

A TIMELESS MOMENT, OR A MOMENT IN TIME

 

Sometimes in dreams I will go back to a particular moment in time when the world seemed so perfect and beautiful that it brought a smile to my lips and tears to my eyes. These might be actual dreams, from which I awaken sad to have come out of the trance and desperately wanting to close my eyes and go back. Or they might simply be waking daydreams, where, for a moment I lose track of current reality and time-travel back to that exact instant and place.

What’s important about this is that the moment itself isn’t a dream. It is very real. It existed in real life, and exists still, if only in my mind. I consider myself fortunate that there have been more than one. Although, at the same time, it makes me sad that I haven’t been able to maintain a level of self-awareness that might have provided me with many more of these special moments, which are the only real definition of complete happiness.

These were times when I was momentarily blind to the crime, violence and dirt of the streets, and to the major problems of the world. They were moments in which all I was aware of was myself and my commitment to the path that I was choosing. It still happened to me, very occasionally, in my early years as a journalist, despite my job’s leading me to witness harsh, often even brutal realities on a daily basis. Perhaps back then I was more able to compartmentalize, to keep the reality that I was reporting separate from my own. Maybe it was even a survival mechanism. Who knows?

That’s probably why as I’ve gotten older and, hopefully, world-wiser, these moments have become, sadly, ever more rare. It’s that I no longer seem able to separate myself from the world I live in. And, search for them though I might, those moments of pure joy and self-realization are rendered practically unattainable, or at least they are no longer unadulterated.

I recall these special moments as timeless instances in which there came a sensation that everything around me was mere scenery that could be just as beautiful as I wanted to make it, and that, just beyond it, in a place I couldn’t quite touch or see, only sense, there was something else. Something more.   

Epiphany. I think that’s probably the word for it. A moment of lightning-bolt realization. An instant stripped of doubt, sorrow, regret, rage or cynicism. A moment of simply being, and knowing that that, in itself, is enough. That it’s a miracle. Life is. Being alive, breathing in and out, seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, loving, that it’s all cause for indescribable joy. For a fleeting moment in time, you might capture it. You hold it in your heart and mind and it fills you. And then it’s gone. But not forgotten. It is branded on your heart and brain and, if you’re lucky, from time to time, it will come back and let you recall it as if it were a snapshot or a video that plays over in your mind, but one that includes more than image. Emotion, feeling, state of mind, all just like they were right then. It’s primitive, unbridled, so simple and pure that it’s an enigma.

Henry Miller - an epiphany
For author Henry Miller, for instance, that sort of moment was eminently literary. In Black Spring, Miller writes:“And then one day, as if suddenly the flesh came undone and  the blood beneath the flesh had coalesced with the air, suddenly the whole world roars again and the very skeleton of the body melts like wax. Such a day it may be when first you encounter Dostoievski. You remember the smell of the tablecloth on which the book rests; you look at the clock and it is only five minutes from eternity, you count the objects on the mantelpiece because the sound of numbers is a totally new sound in your mouth, because everything new and old, or touched and forgotten, is a fire and a mesmerism. Now every door of the cage is open and whichever way you walk is a straight line toward infinity...It was exactly five minutes past seven, at the corner of Broadway and Kosciusko Street, when Dostoievski first flashed across my horizon...”

Harper Lee - a new angle
For Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, that moment of epiphany is experiencing something that causes you to view a world you’ve known all your life from a different angle, and as if seeing it for the first time. She paints that instant through the words of her child protagonist, Scout Finch, when the little girl, as narrator, says, “I turned to go home. Street lights winked down the street all the way to town. I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle. There were Miss Maudie's, Miss Stephanie's—there was our house, I could see the porch swing—Miss Rachel's house was beyond us, plainly visible. I could even see Mrs. Dubose's... Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

My moments of wonder have been much more pedestrian, if just as epiphanous. The first one I can recall happened when I was still a boy, an adolescent of sixteen. It was Christmas-time. I was from Wapakoneta, but nearby Lima, Ohio, had become “my town”. In our rural area, Lima was what passed for “the city”, a big industrial town back then, with an urban feel to it.

No one could have told me even a few months earlier that I would be where I was right then. I had been a drummer in a couple of “kid bands” that played in teen centers for a small cut of the meager cover charge. But then I got a part-time job working in Lima’s biggest music store and my whole life changed. Suddenly, I was in daily contact with all of the professional jazz musicians in the area and at sixteen, was playing as a relief drummer every Friday and Saturday night for at least union scale. It was a dream come true to still be in high school and to be working as a professional musician, a percussion instructor and a respected member of the staff at the music store. I knew every bar and nightclub with live music in the area. And I knew all of the best area musicians by name and was treated like one of them. I had my own car. I had my own money. I had my own life, even though I was still in high school.

The old Lima Public Square by night

It was around Christmas-time of that first wonderful year of dreams come true. The changes had opened up a whole new view of the year ahead. I was inspired to not only play every gig I could but also to give free rein to my other artistic endeavor by starting to take my writing seriously. And, therefore, to also take my reading seriously.  By the end of that year, the future I foresaw was as writer by day, musician by night, in a dream world that couldn’t get any better.

The special moment in time came one night when I was working at the store until nine. I had just been on my supper break. I had walked up Main across the Lima square and half a block up to Gregg’s Department Store, where they had a restaurant I liked on the upper floor. I’d had the ham steak with mashed potatoes with sides of green beans and slaw, washed down with iced tea. And while I ate, I finished reading, for the first time, what was to become one of my favorite short stories of all time—J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé With Love and Squalor.

When I came out, with Salinger’s words still ringing in my ears, the cold had turned sharp as a knife and the sky was mostly clear. Still, snow flurries were falling from some unseen cloud, since, overhead, the sky was infinity-black and dotted with glittering stars. The square was dressed for the holidays, with twinkling colored lights, wreaths, fantasy candy canes and bright red, green and gold ribbons everywhere. And in the middle there was a huge tree with magical lights, silver icicles and oversized ornaments to delight shoppers. Woolworth’s, Penney’s,  Sears, The Leader, Gregg’s and other downtown department stores glistened with holiday cheer, and on the corner, out in front of George Anthony’s Sweetland candy store, coffee shop and restaurant, a group of my newfound colleagues had formed a brass choir and were playing Christmas carols with that sweet, clear, harmonic brass sound that is like no other.

Between tunes they were passing a flask to keep warm and as I went by, one of them called out, “Hey kid!” and held up the flask offering me a snort. I laughed, thanked them and politely refused. And then, as I reached the other side of the square and headed south toward the store, I suddenly felt tears well up in my eyes and the thought that came to me was, “This might well be the happiest moment of my life.”  

As an adult, I remember a New Year’s in Buenos Aires. Virginia and I had invited a number of people to our Mid-town apartment to ring in the New Year. We’d held the celebration at home. I was off from the paper, since the next day was one of only a handful of non-publishing days each year, so I was completely relaxed. Lots of friends and some of Virginia’s relatives showed up, many after they had started bidding the old year farewell elsewhere. There was a surfeit of food and drink and good music on the stereo, and it had been a really fun time, capped by all of us standing together on our eighth-floor terrace, watching a plethora of fireworks burst in dazzling colors above the rooftops.

Then about two or three in the morning, people started peeling off a person or a couple at a time and heading for home. At last, it was just us with a couple with whom we had become intimate friends. They lived upstairs then, and we saw each other several times a week, sometimes daily, and dined together and went out together and took vacations together. We had become like family. Or like something more than family. We truly loved each other.

When everyone else had gone, our friends suggested we go downtown and get a nightcap—champagne, he was buying. So I got my car out of the parking lot around the corner and off we went, east toward the river and downtown along Avenida Corrientes. Partying was still underway in a lot of private homes, but from Mid-town to Downtown, traffic was sparse and many places were already closed, closing or had never opened. It was a rare thing, something almost magical to see the city so abandoned on a warm South American summer’s night.

Fireworks over Buenos Aires...A few hours later the streets
were deserted.

Stranger still was to see the ever busy Avenida Nueve de Julio, the city’s main north-south downtown thoroughfare, practically bereft of traffic. There along that main drag, we found a place that was still open. The refuse of year-end revelers was everywhere, but the fireworks were over with. The place looked jaded and its weary owners less than happy to see us. A little way down the street, a couple were sitting on the pavement, their backs to the front wall of a building, a liter bottle of beer on the sidewalk between them. She was leaning against his shoulder, looking a little the worse for wear, but he was still going strong, strumming the hell out of a box guitar and bellowing out the lyrics of every folk tune he could remember, his voice echoing in the deep canyon of Nueve de Julio where it cleaved a broad swath through the midst of towering buildings. There was no traffic to drown the singer out and he was making the most of this improvised amphitheater.

Inside the bar they were already cleaning up, but our friend talked the owner into letting us sit at one of the tables outside on the sidewalk, and into sending out a bottle of chilled champagne. Suddenly, what might have been the sordid scene of celebration’s end seemed mystical. As if the city were ours alone, with only the scraping guitar and rasping voice to entertain us, as we sipped ice-cold champagne under cones of light from the street lamps, in the grey glint of a sultry summer’s dawn. For perhaps an hour, the four of us sat there joking and laughing and just enjoying being together, putting aside our individual and collective worries and letting trust, love and cold champagne set the mood. By the time we drove back to Mid-town, we had the shimmering streets of Buenos Aires practically to ourselves.

Back home again, I dropped Virginia and our friends at the door of our building. I left the motor running and got out of the car with them. We all hugged and truly meant and felt it, warm as only love can be. Then I went alone to take the car back to the parking lot. It was as I was coming out of the lot that the sun suddenly broke above the horizon and flooded the street around me with the golden-orange first light of a summer day.

I turned to face it, closed my eyes and felt its warmth on my eyelids. My breath caught and a knot formed in my throat. I was completely, unequivocally grateful. It was a new year. I was writing daily for a living, I was married to the woman I loved, I was in the company of friends with whom we shared an almost passionate relationship, and a whole future of promise seemed to be stretching before me. A future that was mine for the taking.

It was a moment of almost uncontainable joy, and one that I would remember forever, even in the hardest of times.

First published in The Southern Yankee in 2019



 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

WHY I’M NOT HERE

 I’m not here today. I mean, I’m not supposed to be.

Actually I am supposed to be because today’s the fifteenth and the fifteenth is one of the two days a month that I regularly post blogs. But what I mean is, I’m not supposed to be because I’m not really allowed. Not according to my wife and my surgeon who are in cahoots on this.

Post-op portrait
See, two days ago, I had eye surgery. It wouldn’t normally have been a terribly big deal—cataract operation to put in an inter-ocular lens. But it was the second eye operation—same eye—this year. The first was in mid-February to remove a fibrous membrane that had developed on my retina, deforming it and eventually distorting the vision in that eye (the left) to the point where I couldn’t really see out of it any more.

I had to travel for that one, because they don’t do that highly complex operation here—here being the Patagonia ski resort near where I live. I had to take a seven-hour bus trip through the wilds of Patagonia to the next piece of civilization two hundred-fifty miles from here, a fruit-growing and oil city in the Río Negro Valley called General Roca. I stayed for a week in Roca, which is a pleasant town, and was operated on by an ophthalmological genius, whose excellent work saved me from losing the sight in that eye.

When the operation was over, however, the genius, Dr. Mancini, told me that my sight would very gradually return to normal, but that the retina surgery would almost necessarily cause the eye to form a rapid-growth cataract. So just as I started seeing well again, in five months or so, my sight would again be impaired by the cataract. But that, he said, I could take care of in Bariloche, where I live.

Now, that placed my need for cataract surgery at right around June-July. That’s mid-winter here in Patagonia. So I had an appointment to see an ophthalmologist at the eye clinic that had sent me to see Mancini in late June. But on that date there was a heavy snow and I couldn’t get out to drive the twelve miles from home to Bariloche. I had to cancel.

They gave me a new appointment for mid-July. But, just when the date rolled around, I got snowed in again and had to cancel. You would think living here, the folks at the eye clinic would understand about snow days. But they all live in town, I assume, and can walk to work if need be, so, no, they didn’t get it.

So, they kept putting me off after that until I was again nearly blind in that eye. And still they were telling me, “No, nothing available. Call us back next week and see if anything has opened up.”

Vindictive, I thought.

Finally, I decided to take the bull by the horns, went to see my medical insurance provider and asked them to recommend some other ophthalmologist. They did, and, as luck would have it, he, Dr. González Valdez, was a former colleague of Dr. Mancini’s. I got hold of Mancini to ask about his fellow doctor, and he told me that the man was a highly capable surgeon. Mancini highly recommended him.

I got in to see him pretty much right away. He assessed the situation and scheduled me for surgery right away. When he completed the procedure two days ago, he said it had gone very well and that I should go see him the next day. When I did, he said that while the operation had gone quite well, the retina operation made it more complex as did the fact that the cataract had grown quite tough, so getting the crystalline lens out to replace it with the artificial lens had caused some swelling in the cornea and had broken a blood vessel in the eyeball. But he said that the prognosis was excellent.

No hat? Like telling me to go naked!
Now he has me putting two kinds of drops in my eye every three hours day and night, and another kind of drops every eight hours. I can’t bend or lift or strain, can’t wear a mask, and can’t wear a hat or cap (that’s like telling me I have to go naked). He’s going to keep a close eye on me until I’m fully recovered.

Me, I’m really grateful to both surgeons. Although my vision is still somewhat blurred in that eye because of the swelling and hemorrhage, I am amazed at what I can see already! That was always—since childhood—my “bad eye” (the worst of the two, neither of which was ever perfect without glasses). I’m convinced that, once I’m fully cured, that’s going to be my good eye. And the light that comes into the eye now is nothing short of incredible to someone whose vision has been impaired for some time now.

Thing is, though, I’m sneaking this blog entry in, because, like I said at the beginning, I’m not supposed to be here!

So if you happen to bump into my wife or my doctor…sssshhh! You never saw me, okay?

Talk to you again soon.