Archive for July 2008

Teeth, women, and cars

July 31, 2008

They say you can tell how a man will treat a woman by the way he takes care of his car. If he keeps his car cleaned and tuned, presumably he’ll treat his wife well. If cars can be barometers of future behavior, I think teeth can be indicators for the way we’ve lived in the past.

Which means dentists can tell a lot about us. Did our teeth rot? Was it from sugar or bad care? They know. They even know at what age the problem began. They see teeth of adults who, as children, could afford to get them straightened, then let them go to pot. They see old teeth that are crooked but otherwise well cared for. They see people who have gentically good or bad teeth; no matter what they do their teeth will survive or rot.

I was thinking about this while putting in an hour-and-a-half at the dentist yesterday, most of that time with three or four hands in my mouth, under repeated shots of novacaine – I lost count – and the air surrounding my reclining body filled with the mist of ground tooth enamel. And in case I missed the complexity of it all, I was billed $900.

Back in my truck, I knew I’d failed the tooth-lifestyle test. I consoled myself with, “But I have an almost new truck. In good condition.” Then I looked around the cab: two pruning saws, old magazines and newspapers – some yellowed from the sun, a sweatshirt, a dozen supermarket receipts – they turn blue, a box cutter, a bunch of pre-1981 pennies (made of pure copper) I’ve been saving them because they’re worth three cents, business cards from last year when I was going to mow lawns part-time (“Quality is affordable!”), broken sunglasses, a corkscrew, a new toothbrush from a previous visit to the dentist, binoculars, a field guide to birds, and a drycleaner redemption ticket for shirts that have been waiting six weeks for me to pick them up. I live alone.


Old books: the art of living, 1910 style

July 30, 2008

By Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931)

Considering that we spend our whole lives in this human machine, that it is our sole means of contact and compromise with the rest of the world, we devote to it very little attention. When I say “we” I mean our inmost spirits, the instinctive part. And when I say “the human machine” I mean the brain and the body. The expression of the soul by means of the brain and the body is what we call the art of “living.” We do not learn this art at school. At school we are shown, practically, that our brains are capable of performing certain useful tricks, and that if we do not compel our brains to perform those tricks we shall suffer. Thus one day we run home and proclaim to our delighted parents that eleven twelves are 132. But not a word about the principles of the art of living yet! Only a few detached rules from our parents, to be blindly followed when particular crises supervene. And, indeed, it would be absurd to talk to a schoolboy about the expression of his soul.

School is merely preparation for living; unless one goes to a university, in which case it is preparation for university. One is supposed to turn one’s attention to living when these preliminaries are over – at the age of twenty. Assuredly one lives then. But one has been living all the time, in a fashion; all the time one has been using the machine without understanding it. But does one, school and college being over, enter upon a study of the machine? Not a bit. The question becomes, not how to live, but how to obtain and retain a position in which one will be able to live; how to get minute portions of dead animals and plants which one can swallow, in order not to die of hunger; how to procure the exclusive right of entry into certain huts where one may sleep and eat without being rained upon. And when one has realised this ambition, there comes the desire to be able to double the operation, for oneself and another. Marriage!

But no scientific sustained attention is yet given to the real business of living, of self-expression, of conscious adaptation to environment – in brief, to the study of the machine. At thirty the chances are that a man will understand better the draught of a chimney than his own respiratory apparatus. And as for understanding the working of his own brain – what an idea! As for the skill to avoid friction in the business of living, do we give an hour to it in a month?

A young lady produces a watercolour drawing. “Very nice!” we say, and add, to ourselves, “For an amateur.” But our living is more amateurish than that young lady’s drawing; though surely we ought everyone of us to be professionals at living.

When we have been engaged in the preliminaries to living for about fifty-five years, we begin to think about slacking off. Up until now our reason for not having scientifically studied the art of living – perfecting the machine – is not that we have lacked leisure (we have heaps of leisure), but that we have simply been too absorbed in the preliminaries, have treated the preliminaries to the business as the business itself.

At fifty-five we ought at least to begin to live our lives with professional skill, as a professional painter paints pictures. But it’s too late. Neither painters nor any professionals can be formed at the age of fifty-five. Thus we finish our lives amateurishly, as we began them. And when the machine creaks and sets our teeth on edge, or refuses to obey the steering wheel and deposits us in the ditch, we say: “Can’t be helped,” or, “I must make the best of things.” And we try to believe that in accepting the status quo we have justified the status quo.

Group: He said…

July 28, 2008

It was a new group and we were introducing ourselves; name, brief background.

“I had to leave,” he said, folding his arms in front of him. “She didn’t throw me out but I couldn’t stay. I’ve been living in my van in my parents’ driveway. They were letting me stay in my old room for awhile, but no more; things got a little touchy. Now I stay in their driveway and if I’m lucky they let me use the shower every couple days.”

He was a large man in his thirties. He looked like he could crush a six-pack in each hand. And he looked like he wanted to. He spoke softly with his crossed arms resting on his great belly, his palms clasping his elbows. He continued his atonal monologue. He seemed to have an ocean of feelings he wanted to share but only drops were coming out.

“I have no money,” he continued. “I’ve been paying this lawyer or he threatened to drop me. At work they’re running out of patience with me. It’s just a small machine shop. Between having to garnish my wages, and the police coming there, and me missing time for…” he freed one hand long enough to wave away the end of that sentence. “Let’s just say if I weren’t friends with the owner – my boss – I’d probably be out of a job.”

He stopped talking and the silence was as painful as his words had been. My own route here, to this metal folding chair, in this week-night group of newly separated men and women meeting in this church basement, wasn’t significantly different than his, or the rest of the group.

I felt he was in such a bad place, spiritually, that no positive soothing response would help. Might only make it worse. I wanted to say something to him sitting across from me, just to lighten things up, like, “Hey, man, after the meeting let’s you and me go have a couple beers and then go out a kill a couple people.”

But I didn’t.

Group: She said…

July 25, 2008

It was check-in time.

“You want to start, Blythe?” asked the facilitator.

Blythe re-crossed her legs and adjusted a hem. “Let’s see, it was last Thursday. I thought I’d get part of the lawn mowed while dinner was in the oven. I couldn’t start the mower and I just went into this rage. I don’t know what came over me. I’m thinking, ‘If he hadn’t left me he could be here cutting the lawn while I made dinner.’ I told the girls If I wasn’t back in 20 minutes to take the meat out of the oven.  I got in my car and drove over to his girlfriend’s apartment – yes – even though he has an order of protection out on me. I knew he’d be there. I picked a doorbell at random and someone buzzed me in. I went up the stairs and knocked on their door, and told him to come out. I knew they were both in there; his car was out front. I was screaming now and pounding on their door, telling him he should be home where he belonged. People were looking out their doors…

“I knew he’d call the police,” she continued, taking a deep breath. “I said to myself, ‘Well, if I’m going to get arrested, I’m going to make it worth my while.’ I went back downstairs, got my daughter’s baseball bat out of my trunk, and I smashed the front windshield and back window of his car. I just beat on it and beat on it.”

I glanced around the circle; most of our group were gaping at her, this quiet, slight-of-build woman who we’d all come to know and love over the weeks.

Spontaenous applause broke out as the facilitator asked, trying to squelch a grin, “How’d you feel?”

I could only hear, “Good. Not too smart, but good…”

Washington State: toothpicks

July 23, 2008

Imagine dumping out a box of toothpicks on your living room floor in a small pile. Now imagine you have an entire case of boxes of toothpicks and you make a row of little piles of toothpicks all the way across your livingroom.

Now imagine every single one of these toothpicks turns into a full-size tree – a log that’s thirty, forty or fifty feet long. Hard to imagine? You don’t have to imagine it; just visit the west coast of Washington. Its beaches are lined with piles of logs for as far as you can see in either direction. Driving along the coast you watch the road with one eye and the logs with another. There – there’s an opening! Someone, a person or maybe Mother Nature, herself, has created a small opening in the logs, a path where a person – moi – can actually stop his car, walk across the beach and stand in the surf of the mighty Pacific Ocean.

The millions of logs that line the beach at the high-tide mark are from a lumber industry that operated in this state for generations with no holds barred. These stray trees, stripped of their bark and once upon a time headed downriver to the sawmill, got away from the loggers and continued on downstream until they spilled into the Pacific.

Here they lie, speaking to past indiscretions and current non-actions.

Sea Bass; they grow on trees, don’t they?

July 22, 2008

When I was a kid we fished off the shore of Ocean City, New Jersey, one glorious summer day. After hours of riding atop thrilling roller coaster waves and catching everything from a choice flounder to sting rays, an eel, a sand shark, and a slew of sea robins, we ran out of bait. On the way back to shore, Ken, the son of the boat’s owners – who were friends of my parents – opened the engine compartment, took out an old rag, ripped off a small piece and baited his hook with it. The bait barely hit the water when he had a strike. A sea bass; small; the size of a woman’s foot.

My brother and I baited up and started reeling in sea bass like they were waiting to jump in the boat. We’d hit a school. Between the three of us we filled two five-gallon drywall paste buckets with sea bass and stopped fishing only because there was nowhere else to put them. Back on shore we lugged the sloshing buckets into the house, insisting to our doubtful parents that we were indeed going to clean, cook and eat 30 sea bass.

“They’re small,” I argued.

Suddenly, my brother and Ken were watching The Price is Right and it was just me cleaning the sea bass; two; Ken didn’t want any.

Ken’s mom cooked them. They were too sweet for me. My brother had fallen asleep. The rest of the bass in the buckets were already going belly up. When we left that night, Ken’s mom said not to worry, she’d “take care of” the 28 dead bass.

Since that day I’ve always thought of sea bass as plentiful, garbage-eating, overly-sweet fish that you couldn’t pay me to eat. I was quite suprised yesterday evening when I noticed sea bass in the supermarket was $20.99 a pound.

Old Books: How to live on 24 hours a day

July 21, 2008

Excerpts from “How to Live on Twenty-four Hours a Day,” 1910, by Arnold Bennet:

“I have seen an essay, How to Live on Eight Shillings a Week. But I have never seen an essay, How to Live on Twenty-four Hours a Day. Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time you can obtain money – usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloak-room attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than the cat by the fire has.

“Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you!

“For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

“Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say, ‘This man is a fool, if not a knave. he does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.’ Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to go into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

“I said the affair was a mircale. Is it not?”