It was fun while it lasted, but I knew things were winding down when, a couple weeks ago, I came inside after sitting on the backsteps awhile guzzling Staropramen and communing with nature. My wife asked, "Who were you talking to?" She had been in the kitchen and had heard me through the back door.
"I was talking?" I was not being disingenuous.
"I heard someone's voice. It sounded like yours."
"Maybe a neighbor walked by. I'm sociable."
"No, you aren't. And it was just one voice."
Women won't let go of things, no matter how unimportant. In fact, the more unimportant it is, the more they want to know. They specialize in taking the unimportant and making it the opposite. So I fessed up.
"It was the bird."
"Yeah, the mockingbird. You know, the one that lives in the hedge."
"You were talking to a bird?"
"He talked to me first." He (or she) was in the habit of landing in the camphor tree, squawking at me, then spreading his wings to show off the white markings on the back. This day he left the camphor and landed in the grass a few feet away, still squawking and spreading. It was clearly aimed at me. Probably he wanted me to keep mowing and kicking up insects. My mistake was to talk back. That's what the wife heard. I don't remember what I said to him before he flew away, but there it was.
"You were talking to a bird." This time it wasn't a question. She gave me a look and left the room.
"They're smarter than you think," I said to her back. They are, I continued, completely admirable creatures, getting along as they do without air conditioning, grocery stores, or any of the modern conveniences, and they have to avoid predators, like the neighborhood cats. We've got it easy by comparison, but she was gone to do more important things. I may have had a buzz on by that point. I didn't remember actually talking to the bird until she mentioned it. Which means I may do it on occasion without being aware of it. Time will tell if it's important.
(Wow, Mr. Luse, this really is the minutiae of life - mowing the yard, drinking beer, talking to birds. Did you do, or have you to say, anything of significance? Yes, I did and I do. That part about the beer? I drank a lot of it.)
* * * *It took some time, but I restored her faith by taking her out to a movie Wednesday past. I asked her on Monday. She told the girls by phone, who responded more or less in unison, "Oh, that's so sweet! What are you going to see?"
The choice lay among Eastern Promises, The Kingdom, and some western I can't remember. Oh yeah. Something about a train to Yuma. The first best fit our schedule, so I got some popcorn and a four dollar soft drink and headed down the tunnel (it's a big old multiplex). On the way we saw a couple of lesbians. That's because they were a couple. Lone lesbians are hard to pick out. Especially in the case of these two, who were all girl - pretty, long hair, normally dressed, none of that dikey shtick. They were holding hands, exchanging whispers, pecking each other on the cheek. Of course, at first you just think they're good friends, until the hand-holding goes on too long. I lost track of them for a minute while my wife visited the restroom. Then they came wandering back along the tunnel, passing right by me. I stood there holding my coke and staring while they exchanged a sweet kiss on the lips. It was my study stare. There's no intention behind it, no anger, but it's direct, unwavering and, according to those who know me (my wife), kind of expressionless. The dead-eye, she calls it, intending no compliment. When the girls' lips parted, the copper-haired one saw me and tried to hold steadfast, but dropped her gaze in a bashful smile. They went on their way, one girl's thumb hooked on a beltloop in the other's jeans, her fingers touching her ass. No, I wasn't angry, just wondering if I would have been were I still the father of young daughters, wondering about the need for a public display, about what's eating the souls of our young people, none of which I had an answer for. Behind all that I was somewhat amused. If I had been able to ask, and either girl had told me, in accordance with the current correctness, that she "was born this way," I'd have been compelled to laugh. She could go through a battery of tests and get the documentation signed by the leading authoritative biological propagandist in the field, and I still wouldn't believe her. I know I'm supposed to though. When people tell you things about themselves, things that presumably only they could know, it's infallible. A girl (a student) did once tell me, "God made me this way." I'd rather hear it from God, but you know how that goes.
* * * *Anyway, I still had a movie to get through, but first we had to sit through a bunch of TV commercials and previews. One told about an upcoming work of hagiography called Jimmy Carter: the Man from Plains. The second most incompetent president in American history (the first was Jimmy Carter; he's his own predecessor) gets canonized by director Jonathan Demme. It was stomach-turning. As was the main feature, though for different reasons.
I suppose now you'll want a review of Eastern Promises. Sorry, but there's no money in it. Ross Douhat, who does get money for it, says at the end of his review that, while it left him with "an unsettled fascination, and a reluctant craving for more"...What it all adds up to I'm not quite sure..." Yep. Real money. When it doesn't all add up, it's probably telling you something. Another reviewer at MSNBC says that Naomi Watts' character is a doctor. Douhat says she's a midwife. One of those guys needs to give back some of the money. The Msnbc guy also notes that director David Cronenberg "uses the film's amped-up (but never gratuitous) violence to implicate the audience even as the suspense builds to almost unbearable levels. Nowhere is this more evident in that plenty bloody, full-frontal nude fight scene, which takes place in a bath house."
The lousy writing aside - excuse me? The violence implicates me? Which throat did I ask to see slit? (In this film, you get to see the blade slice through, the blood pour, the head nearly fall off.) Which pretty young hollow-eyed Russian sex-slave did I ask to see screwed in plain sight? And when did I ever ask to see Viggo Mortensen in full monty? For the foregoing reasons, I - as a card-carrying lukewarm Catholic - feel obligated not to recommend the film. All the good things Douhat says about it are true. But it's hard to find any condemnation these days, even among conservatives. A mysterious atmosphere, good performances, and the ambience of "seriousness" seem enough to pass muster. Pornographic violence and sex are acceptable as long as they can be rationalized as not having been offered for their own sake, not to mention that a modern conservative would not want to be caught in flagrante as a practicing prude. (It's actually worse than that; I think they like the stuff.)
I will say one good thing about the movie: David Cronenberg finally proves he has a soul, and the baby lives. That sounds like two things, but it's not.
* * * *Speaking of killing things (in case you didn't recognize it, that's my trademark, rhetorically lazy transitional device, a trait I often condemn in others), over at W4 the other day they were talking about the Endangered Species Act, and the right of a rancher to shoot wolves attacking his livestock. Lydia wants the act repealed, so Jeff Martin felt compelled to mount a defense of the natural world, and eventually the argument got down to "intrinsically evil" brass tacks. Does the rancher, for example, have the right to shoot the last wolf on earth if he catches it trying to kill one of his cows? Well, noted Zippy, it might be wrong, but not intrinsically evil, for what must the answer be if that wolf is caught trying to kill a human child? Well, okay, though I've known some children...So yes, it's all about circumstances, which led me to other quandaries. What would you do if you saw the last wolf on earth attacking this guy?:
Yeah. Me too. Who would you rather inherit the earth? This gal:
Or this guy?:
This is getting easier all the time. But then I thought of a hard one. Suppose I saw the wolf attacking Cedar, my daughter's dog. You remember. He looked like this on recent visit home:
What then? I'd kill the wolf. Why? Because I love Cedar and Cedar loves me. The things we'll do for love.
* * * *Speaking of yardwork, I got Elizabeth to do some during her last sojourn at the homestead back in September:
She was only good for about one pass, not being fond of this kind of labor, nor dressed for the occasion, but she was gracious enough to pretend to be impressed by the self-propulsion on the new mower. All you do is touch the handle and it moves at whatever speed you're walking. "Wow, that's really neat, Dad," as she headed for the car. She had somewhere to be. I'll tell you what; if the wolf were attacking her, it's curtains for the wolf, even if she doesn't like yardwork.
Speaking of which, that is, of important things I did over the summer aside from that and drinking beer, there is one other thing. I suppose proof will be demanded, so here's an example:
All right. So it's not important.
* * * *After the movie we head home. I end up sitting in a chair, staring at a blank TV screen, unable to eat dinner because of popcorn bloat. The TV was off because there was nothing worth watching. A Sopranos episode on A&E, but I'd already seen them all. All, because, as a card-carrying lukewarm Catholic, I prefer my sex, violence and foul language in moderation. When my wife goes into the bedroom to say her rosary and get ready for bed, I'm left to sit there and stew in my own mortality. It sometimes happens when I have nothing better to do. That's what the TV's good for; it keeps you from thinking about things like that. Have you ever tried to think about nothing, in the presence of silence? (Yes, it is a presence). It can't be done. Maybe it was all the throat-slitting or the finger-lopping (more graphic than 24 even), but I started wondering why I should live forever. I may be only half-smart, but that's enough to know that if I wish obliteration upon Ahmadinejad, I'm wishing it upon myself.
I suppose the question occurs by way of consciousness of one's own depravity, which makes it hard to understand why one should, or must, continue on. I've had some enjoyment in life, and thunk some thoughts that might even have been sequentially pristine. So what? I've known stupid people who are better than I. But a sense of unworthiness requires belief in some transcendant condition which is its opposite. It would be easier to be an atheist, without that cloud, that consciousness of imperfection following me everywhere; then my unimportance would be manifest, its opposite impossible of existing.
But, saith the believer, you are important because God says so. You will live forever because he wills it. It's a gift. You can refuse the gift, but in so doing must acknowledge its reality.
Unless you're an atheist, I surmise. Besides, the gift isn't exactly freely given. It isn't as though it comes with no strings attached. Without that striving for perfection, you'll never completely unwrap it. Unless you do things His way, you won't really like what you see when you open it. A thing may be freely given, but apparently neither freely received, nor rejected. Whichever you choose, there's a price to pay. That's not the way Christmas works in most places. All you have to do is say thank you, and then you're free to go.
Which led me to a question that's been plaguing me, because I once asked it of readers but never answered myself. (Not many readers did either, probably because it required too much thinking, which is approximately what I'm doing right now, absent the pristine sequentiality). One fellow said that what kept him going was gratitude. For everything. It was enough to see the light of day. Good enough for me. How complicated can it be, really? Lydia testifies to looking forward to the day when she will be "fixed," made perfect, realize the full integrity of being for which she was destined. And that's good enough for me, too.
But I wonder if I really want to be fixed. I wonder it of others, too, because I don't see much evidence (which probably means that it's not what keeps me going, even if it ought to be). I know a lot of Christians go to church and recite with the crowd, asking God to, for example, take away their manifold sins and wickedness, but I don't think they mean it. Based on the evidence. It's as though they hope for a heaven that's much like what's going on now, but with the physical ailments and the criminal element removed.
For evidence, saith the preacher, you must look to the saints, not the sinners. But I like the sinners. Some of them. I knew this girl once, a student, who was nice to everybody, whom everyone instinctively liked, and whose opinions on just about everything were (by my alleged standards) wrong. (The fact that she was blond and pretty no doubt made it easier to like her, but only at first sight; I've had plenty whose beauty did not bear up well under a dragon's spirit). She had the capacity for argument without arguing. She never became combative when I asked the hard questions, unlike so many others for whom the suggestion that they might be wrong was cause for personal offense. There was none of this about her. All by herself (and this is exceedingly rare), she made going to that class a pleasant experience - for me. The whiners, complainers, and slackers might as well not have existed. And the reason, it seemed to me, was that in her soul of souls she was a good person. No one can keep up a front forever.
How can you call her good, it might be asked, if, as you say, she was so wrong about so many things? Well, that was a puzzlement. The one issue I remember is gay marriage. She was for it - did her research paper on it. "You'll change your mind when you have children," I said. She looked sideways, briefly raised her eyebrows, and said, "Oh. Okay," deflecting me, as was her wont. She probably thought that, if two people loved each other, denying their union was a species of meanness. If shallow in its foundation, she was at least not without one, its motivation not venal, but charitable. One night she called me at home regarding an emergency that would prevent her from attending class. I wasn't there, so she spoke to my wife. The next time I saw her, she told me how sweet my wife was. She couldn't stop going on about it, and I thought, "This is real, it can't be faked," as well being put in mind of why I had married the woman in the first place, a generally healthy exercise. And that's when I knew the answer: this girl - slow to judge, perhaps excessively so - looked for the good in others. I - quick to judge, perhaps excessively so - looked for the bad. It was easier and more fun. It rescinded the obligation to extend one's self toward 'the other.' It afforded the pleasure of sarcasm and cynicism, created a comfortable barrier, and built a fine fence of self-righteous isolation. This girl had the capacity, without even trying, of tearing all that down. I call her good because, even in her wrongness, she was right where I could not be.
I mention her because it would have been too easy to fall back on the wife and kids. If you have a wife who said she'd be faithful and actually meant it, you're confronted with a mystery you don't deserve to get to the bottom of. Just be glad of it. If you have a daughter (better yet, more than one) who, when she smiles or takes your hand on the way into church, makes you want it to go on forever, you've already surrendered to the call of perfection.
But, as the scripture remindeth, it's easy to love those who love you. There are other lights out there as well. They come into your life and pass out of it, but the proposition that they must also be extinguished is one for a world I cannot inhabit. It's an intolerable absurdity. Metaphysics is fine, but those lights, those people, are my evidence of things not seen, my proof, my fortitude. It is the small and passing things in the concrete here and now that make my world so enormous. If there is any virtue in this - approach, shall we say - it is only that it is not entirely selfish, though it may be lazy, for I'd rather bask in the light of another than brighten my own.
Anyway, that's what keeps me going (a big part of it, at least; we know ourselves so poorly). Any readers who have come to regret that I am sometimes left alone in a chair to think are forgiven in advance.