A Blog by Jameson Parker
The Span of Life
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
- Robert Frost
The standoff in Nevada between rancher Cliven Bundy and the United States government is being represented by some portions of the mainstream press as being about a stubborn rancher’s refusal to pay grazing fees to the federal government on “federal land.”
Even on conservative Fox News that was the stated cause of the current standoff, Fox News being evidently as unaware as the more liberal press that this has absolutely nothing to do with “federal land.” For one thing, there is no such thing as “federal land.” Article I, Section Eight of the United States Constitution says: “[The Congress shall have the power to] Exercise exclusive legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings…” That’s it. The federal government is allowed to own the District of Columbia and the land necessary for military use, and nothing else. All the rest that the feds and others like to call “federal land” is actually your land. My land. Our land. The feds may administer it, but they most emphatically do not own it.
Other more liberal news organizations have attempted to make it seem as if this is about environmental issues, specifically a desert tortoise, trying to portray the tortoise and cattle as adversaries, never mind that tortoise and cattle have co-existed on desert land ever since cattle were first introduced to North America. Besides, Nevada’s Democratic Senator, Harry Reid, has apparently already moved the boundaries of the protected desert tortoise land to allow some of that land to be developed by one of his cronies, so it can’t be about the tortoise.
More recent news reports claim Senator Reid and his son, Rory Reid (already embroiled in a campaign contribution scandal), want the land for a Chinese energy firm represented by Reid, Jr. that plans to put up solar panels, and that that is why the Senator made his former Senior Policy Advisor in charge of public land issues, Neil Kornze, the head of the Bureau of Land Management. And that may very well be part of the reason why Mr. Bundy is being driven off his land.
But if you watch the news, you will see aerial shots of Mr. Bundy’s ranchland with cattle grazing near a stream, and the old Watergate adage of “follow the money” is applicable here, because in the American West, “follow the money” and “follow the water” are the same thing. Water is gold in the American West, and whoever owns the water rights is—or will be once the water is diverted from cattle to golf courses in Las Vegas and Los Angeles—very, very rich. And taking ranchers’ land away from them on thin or non-existent pretexts to get their water is nothing new.
For those of you unfamiliar with land ownership and water rights in the American West, there is a concept here called the “split estate” which makes land ownership very interesting. If you buy a big tract of land, you get just that, a bunch of soil, but the water rights and grazing rights are separate properties that may be purchased or sold by themselves, as are the mining rights, timber rights, oil and gas rights, wildlife rights, easement rights, development rights, trespass rights, and possibly other rights that I’m not aware of. If you take the concept of the “split estate” to its illogical extreme, it is theoretically possible for you to own a piece of land in the West with which you can’t do a single damn thing except pay taxes and boast.
Of course, if you own the land and the water rights near Las Vegas, you can make a fortune putting up houses, solar panels, and selling water to drought-stricken cities. It’s a very lucrative win-win for somebody.
Update: As of this morning, the Federal Aviation Administration has declared a “no-fly zone” over the area around the Bundy ranch, effectively preventing news helicopters from obtaining footage. One wonders what they’re afraid the American public might see. Other than the water.
For the first time in all the years we’ve been married, Darleen and I are down to one dog. We’ve never had less than three, and at one point, due to circumstances beyond our control (soft heads, soft hearts, dogs in need of rescue) we had five, and the chaos level in the house was on a par with a badly run kindergarten. Imagine the lunatics not even bothering to run the asylum. We have decided to keep it down to two, but that still leaves us one dog shy, so we drove down to the nearest city to see about rescuing a dog. I’m not sure why, but southern California seems to have more than its fair share of irresponsible pet owners. Between three and four million dogs and cats are euthanized at shelters all across America every year. That translates to roughly 80,000 animals a week, and the shelters in southern California are overwhelmed. Apparently large numbers of people labor under the misapprehension that neutering old Rover or Miss Tabby is somehow cruel. Or maybe they’re just so dumb they don’t even think of it at all. The Audubon Society claims that the single greatest killer of migrating songbirds is the domestic (or feral) cat, yet people all over the nation think it is cruel not to let their cats out to play. It is possible the birds who get played with have a different perspective. And every mentally negligible moron in the country seems to think his dog is worthy of reproduction (“Let the kiddies see the miracle of birth.” I have actually heard that.) with the result that every time you go to the local shopping mall there are kiddies standing out in front with cardboard boxes of puppies they are trying to give away. Or starving pit-bulls running loose along the interstate. Or unidentifiable messes of bloody fur on the asphalt. In the years we have lived in our little rural corner of the mountains, ten miles out from a very small town, Darleen and I have averaged two stray dogs a year on our property. For the first four or five years we earnestly tried to find the owners, but after one such paragon of compassion told Darleen on the phone, “Ah, just kick him in the gut and send him on home,” (that’s a direct quote) we stopped trying to return them. Now we feed them and take them down to the shelter or, if injured, to our local vet. If you’re too stupid and irresponsible to get your dog micro-chipped, and you can’t be bothered to even keep a collar with a tag on him, you don’t deserve to get him back. But rescuing a dog is not as easy as you might imagine. We had to rule out a wide range of the shelter’s offerings. Pete is a male, a male with a tendency for brawling, and I have broken up more than my fair share of dog fights during my life, so it’s female only. We ruled out dogs with obvious communicable diseases, and dogs that showed any signs of aggression toward people or toward Pete or toward cats. After that we ruled out various characteristics or breed types that would make our lives miserable for one reason or another. We spent two days at two different shelters and finally gave up. The best of the bunch was a sort of Labrador kind of cross that had been neglected in a backyard for so long that it had reached a state I can only describe as catatonic in terms of its reactions to humans. She was fine with Pete, but completely unresponsive to the vet tech, to me, to Darleen. I can understand a dog being unresponsive to me, but if a dog is unresponsive to Darleen, it has serious problems. A pet rock would respond to my bride. So we are still, for the time being, a one-dog family. But what the experience left me with was a conviction that there is something seriously wrong with man’s relationship with his best friend. And if man can treat an animal with such callous disregard, how will he treat his fellow man? I don’t think we’re going to see peace on earth anytime soon.
We had to put our old corgi down. She, Belle, is the alert one in the photo above, shown with her friend Scooter in a chair I used to be able to sit in myself. Old is a relative term; she was only ten, which is old for some breeds, but not—or it shouldn’t be—for corgis. Belle was a semi-rescue (what breeders euphemistically call “pet quality”) that no one else wanted and so, being soft-headed and soft-hearted, we took her. She was a delight. She had tremendous charm and brains enough to know how to use it. When guests came over, she would work the room like a cabaret singer, and when we went out with her somewhere, she invariably made everyone smile. She was a mess. She had terrible structure, including excessively turned-out feet that caused her great difficulty and necessitated a surgery in her later years. In her later years (which should have been her middle-aged years) she also developed Cushing’s disease, something I had thought only horses got. She was a delight. She was hands down, without question, the finest and most alert watch dog I have owned, seen, known, heard of, or encountered. If she went on high alert and growled at the back door, it invariably meant there was something up on the hill behind the house, frequently something so far away that it took us and the other dogs a long time to spot it. If she went on high alert toward the front of the house, it invariably meant someone was driving up the lane, even if the car was still a quarter mile away. Both of these she did regularly, summer and winter, even when the house was buttoned up tight and the television was showing the Animal Planet. She was a mess. Her nerves were so bad she was terrified of practically everything, which made taking her anywhere extremely difficult. Even walking her around the fields in our own neck of the woods could be problematic: my neighbor to north sometimes practices shooting in the canyon north of his house. The distance is about half a mile, and the shooting is always muffled by the canyon wall, but she would begin to shake and, if she was off-leash, she would run back to the house. Since the only way to (hopefully, possibly) get a dog over a fear factor is to ignore any behavior exhibited, taking her anywhere was a challenge. She was a delight, getting along with everyone, human, equine, canine, and feline. She always stayed calm around the horses, resolutely ignored the cats, and bedeviled Pete the Boxer into games. She also used to bedevil me into playing tug-of-war with her, but only with one very specific toy. I lived in fear that toy would disintegrate and that she would be inconsolable. We purchased another, identical in every way save color, but she wouldn’t touch it. Unfortunately, the toy lasted longer than she did. She was a mess, badly bred by an irresponsible breeder; but even the typically callous, venal, avaricious breeders so prevalent today in America, even that despicable person couldn’t destroy the essential sweetness of one of the world’s oldest breeds. She was a delight.
Arguably the most beautiful state in the West, Colorado seems to have veered off onto a course that has more in common with California, New York, Connecticut, and possibly Oz than with any semblance of sanity. Let’s review the bidding:
Just a little over a year ago, Colorado passed four questionably constitutional anti-gun laws, laws that a majority of the state’s county sheriffs publically announced they neither could nor would enforce. The passage of the laws, coupled with an extraordinarily insensitive response to a rape victim by then state Senator Evie Hudak, resulted in a recall election in which two other senators lost their seats and Ms. Hudak resigned. The passage of the laws also prompted one of Colorado’s larger employers, Magpul, a manufacturer of firearms and firearm accessories, to leave Colorado entirely. (They are still technically in Colorado, but are in the throes of moving their manufacturing plant to Wyoming and their corporate headquarters to Texas.)
Just a few months later, the state passed Amendment 64, legalizing the use of marijuana. Regardless of your views on drug usage, marijuana use, possession, sale, distribution, or cultivation is still illegal under federal law. In my state of California, marijuana is cultivated by drug cartel employees in remote places where both hunters and Fish and Wildlife agents have come under fire, making the once bucolic job of Fish and Wildlife one of the most dangerous law enforcement jobs in the state. (Marijuana is also, according to the Sheriff’s Department in my county, considered to be as much of an impediment to driving as either alcohol or cell phone use. It is further considered to be a “gateway” drug, meaning it—pick a word—encourages, inspires, tempts young users to try other more dangerous drugs.)
And now, a U.S. District judge in Colorado, Christine Arguello, has handed down a two-year sentence for a woman who was convicted of buying a gun for a recently paroled felon and known white supremacist who subsequently used that gun to murder two men, to severely wound a Texas Sheriff’s Deputy, and to fire multiple rounds at other police officers during a high-speed chase. Purchasing a firearm for a person who is himself legally unable to buy a gun is a straw purchase. It is a violation of multiple federal and state (specifically Colorado) laws. Since in this particular case, the gun was knowingly bought for a convicted felon, and subsequently used in two murders, it would not be a stretch to charge the woman in question as an accessory to murder. Instead, Ms. Arguello chose to give the woman in question a slap on the wrist.
So what is cumulative message being sent here? We can deduce that Colorado state legislators regard federal laws more as suggestions than as laws and that they, the state legislators, may pick and choose which of those suggestions they wish to enforce. We can deduce that the state legislators also regard the (federally illegal) marijuana business as more desirable than the legal firearms manufacturing business. We can also deduce that Colorado state legislators regard passing laws restricting the freedoms of law-abiding gun owners to be an effective way of discouraging criminals, even as we also deduce that at least one federal judge regards being an accessory to the murder of two men and the wounding of third as a relatively insignificant crime. We can further deduce that if violating existing federal and state gun laws (conducting a straw purchase, for example) is not taken seriously by judges, those laws become as meaningless to criminals as, oh, all other gun laws, or let’s say the federal drug laws the Colorado legislators choose not to enforce.
And finally, we can deduce that perhaps Colorado is no longer the crown jewel of Western states. Unless of course you’re in the marijuana business.
Back in the golden days of classic Greek theater, when Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were ruining their health and tearing their hair out dealing with narcissistic actors who complained they didn’t have enough lines, or it would be better if their character did it this way, or couldn’t they move here instead, there was a tradition of violence taking place off-stage. This was done, in part, because the Greeks of the classical era knew very well that nothing they could show would ever be as appalling as what the audience could imagine.
Fast forward roughly two and a half millennia to, oh, let’s say the days of Simon & Simon, when television censors demanded all violence be sanitized, made tasteful and decorous, so that a man might be beaten, stabbed, shot, and thrown off a rooftop, but when the camera closed in on his dead body, all the audience saw was a delicate little trickle of stage blood from one corner of his primly closed mouth.
Now fast forward again roughly two and a half decades to the over-the-top movies of, oh, let’s say director Quentin Tarantino and producer Harvey Weinstein, where mindless and meaningless violence is glorified almost as an independent art form in and of itself. (Remember Steve Martin as the producer of ultra-violent movies in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon? “Where are the brains? When he shoots him the script calls for brains splattering against the window. Where are the goddamn brains!? Am I the only one who’s trying to be true to the script here?”)
I am not a fan of the Quentin Tarantino/Harvey Weinstein oeuvre. In part, I find their movies moronic, and in part, having been shot twice, I have no need to be titillated by their grotesqueries. (To be fair to both of them: I briefly attended an acting class where Quentin Tarantino was a student, back in the early eighties, and found him highly intelligent and quite funny in a quirky sort of way. And Harvey Weinstein, in spite of his tasteless and morally bankrupt hypocrisy in making a fortune exploiting gratuitous violence with guns and now vowing to destroy the NRA for being violence-mongers—never mind the complete inaccuracy and dishonesty of that assessment—has actually made some delightful and life-affirming movies, notably Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, and Chocolat.) Nothing shown on film can ever be as horrifying as either reality or imagination. Do us all a favor, please: don’t sanitize it and don’t glorify it. Don’t even show it. Take it off-stage.
Which brings me to quite the most violent film I have seen in a long time, possibly ever, a movie so graphically violent that my friend, screenwriter Dan Bronson, simply couldn’t watch it. The difference is that this is violence for a very specific cinematic purpose, violence seen from the point of view of the men committing it and to whom it is committed. It is violence portrayed in a way that vividly brings home an understanding of the PTSD returning vets have to deal with.
Lone Survivor is based on the non-fiction book of that name, written by the eponymous Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell, played in the movie by Mark Wahlberg. The plot, very briefly, revolves around a four-man Seal team sent out to kill a Taliban leader. In a complete fluke, two Afghan boys and an old man, herding goats in the mountains above their village, stumble onto the team, and the characters in the movie, like the real-life members of the team, are thrust into the greatest moral dilemma any man can face, a moral dilemma worthy of Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides. There is no question about the loyalties of the three Afghans; even with no understanding of a word they say, it is clear they will run back to their village and alert the Taliban. The mission has been jeopardized, and the only possibility for the Navy Seals to even have a minute chance of success, or even to survive, is to kill or neutralize the civilians. They quickly distill their choices down to killing the villagers outright; tying them to trees, with the certain knowledge they will freeze to death during the night or be eaten alive by wolves; or letting them go.
From a purely historical perspective, I found this to be the single best moment in any movie I have seen in memory. How do ordinary men make such decisions? It is war, and in all wars from the beginning of recorded history until very recently, the rules have been very simple: there are no rules. We want this land, wealth, whatever, and we simply kill or enslave everyone who stands between us and our goal. I have an unnerving memory of a national hero from World War Two, a man whose name is now a household word for all we revere in our warriors, telling me once how he bombed a town in Germany (we bombed without concern for civilians back then, remember?) and the next day, knowing the survivors would be burying their dead, he went back and strafed the funeral procession, killing the women and old men and children who had escaped his bombing.
Today, war has changed. There are rules of engagement, ludicrous Marquis of Queensbury rules for fighting against people who still fight by the old, bloody non-rules of Tamerlane and Attila and Genghis Khan. We are supposed to surgically destroy the soldiers while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the widows and orphans we create. It is perhaps the stupidest philosophy of war ever known. And yet…
And yet, what would you have done?
One of the things Lone Survivor does is to put you there on that mountain, with the means, the motive, and the opportunity for doing what should be done, what must be done, not merely for the sake of the mission, but for the sake of life itself, and asking you if you have the stomach for it. Could you kill someone to save your life? It’s not an abstract question. It’s not a question of death at a tastefully sanitized distance, from the cockpit of a plane, or from a sniper’s position eight hundred or a thousand meters away. It’s not death in the unambiguous throes of combat, killing the man who is lunging at you with your death in his hands. It’s not a moral question of saving the lives of your wife and children as the door bursts open in the night. It is playing God in the most agonizing possible way, Abraham cutting his own son’s throat, the boy’s eyes looking up in disbelief, incomprehension, three Isaacs helpless before you on a mountainside in Afghanistan. Watching, you know what the smart thing is, as do the ordinary young men who have been put in this position. You know very well that to let those three Isaacs live is to seal your own fate, to make your own death an immanent and gruesome reality.
What would you have done?
The rest of the movie is devoted to the frantic and hopeless attempts of these young men to stay alive, and it concludes with the equally random fluke of Marcus Luttrell’s survival. And at the very end, there is a montage sequence of the actual soldiers who were killed on that mountain, real-life snapshots and a video of one of them from their civilian lives, with beloved mothers and fathers and wives and children, a happy dog who will never again see the man who makes his life, and that montage brought Darleen and me to tears.
What would I have done?
The East is in the grip of yet another icy winter storm, but here in California were are not only experiencing the worst drought in years, but we are also experiencing the earliest spring I can remember. It’s only the second week in February and already the Flowering Pear trees in town are in bloom, while the Flowering Plums we planted in front of our house are pink with blossoms. The southern Sierras are noted for a relatively mild climate, but this is ridiculous. February?
Taking advantage of the mild weather, I was barbequing pork loins the other night under the watchful supervision of Pete the Beautiful Big Brave Brainy Bouncing Brindle Boxer. Supervising is what Pete does. After mature consideration and close observation, Pete has come to the conclusion that Darleen is not competent to do anything without his supervision, especially if it involves going somewhere in the car, and that while I am reasonably competent in the barbequing department, there is always the chance I might drop the plate. If you’re a Boxer, when it comes to food, hope springs eternal. Hope, and a marked tendency to lie about when or even if you last had a meal.
Pork has to be watched closely, so the two of us were outside doing the watching, when I saw a bobcat working his or her way through the tall grass on the hill behind the house. (Note I said I saw the bobcat; Pete doesn’t get easily distracted when watching barbequed meat.) The cat was only about thirty yards outside the fence walking slowly and steadily along, neither hunting nor hurrying. Since Pete and I had been talking, and I had been rattling the barbeque grill, opening and closing the top, turning the loins, and moving around on the patio, there is no way that cat couldn’t have been aware of us, barring hearing impairment and a visual handicap. He, or she, walked past the stumps of the dead pines I had to have cut down, across a wide open space, over a large boulder, never looking down at us, and only as he began to wind through some smaller boulders did my watchdog extraordinaire finally see him.
One of the wonderful things about Boxers is that they don’t get hysterical. They don’t frighten easily, or possibly at all, but they don’t bark unnecessarily either. In fact, the only way I could be certain Pete saw the bobcat (he wasn’t about to leave the barbeque) was that his entire energy changed and his eyes hardened. I know that may sound strange, but Boxers have marvelously expressive faces, and now his normal goofy eat-play-love expression was gone and he was back on active duty.
The two of us watched the bobcat pick his way through the rocks, across another open space, and when it finally passed the twelve o’clock position relative to us, Pete trotted out toward the far end of the fence. For the first time, the bobcat glanced down. He was clearly so completely terrified and caught off-guard by seeing a vicious, bloodthirsty man and a ferocious Boxer thirty yards below him that he had to sit down and scratch vigorously behind one ear to relieve his feelings. Then, with that curious mixture of languor and grace peculiar to cats, he jumped up onto a large flat boulder, reclined elegantly on his side looking down at us, and began a lengthy toilette, grooming himself carefully from ears to tail. Pete sat down in the gravel below him, the two of them watching each other, Pete with interest, the cat with magnificent unconcern.
Just then I saw Darleen through the window and signaled to her to bring the binoculars. She looked at the cat through binoculars and we talked in normal tones until the pork was done. Taking the meat off the grill and putting it on a plate finally drew Pete away from his observation post—after all, it’s all very well being a loyal watchdog and protector, but let’s not get our priorities skewed—and we all went inside. But what stayed with me, what especially delighted me, was the complete unconcern of the bobcat: man, wife, dog, barbeque, conversation, opening and closing of the door, none of it bothered him. I hope he stays close by. I hope he kills some of the damned ground squirrels that are coming out of my ears. Hell, I’ll happily barbeque some of them for him.
I have received comments and emails from many of you who are having various kinds of trouble either getting subscription notices, or making comments to the blog. I have no idea what is going on, but I have forwarded your messages to the computer guru who might be able to fix the problems. There is no computer program so good that it can’t be fouled up ten ways to Sunday by improving it. In the meantime, as we try to get this fixed, I appreciate your patience. Here is another review.
The quest is one of the tried-and-true themes that has driven works of fiction probably for as long as man has been making up stories to entertain his fellow man. Think of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the only reason I don’t go back even further is because I haven’t gotten around to reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the only work of fiction I know of that predates Homer. The quest is a theme that allows for almost infinite variations: a golden fleece, a girl’s heart, a new country, a monster that must be slain… The permutations go on and on, though of course the goal is unimportant and the quest is all.
In Nebraska, Bruce Dern sets out on a misguided quest for a million dollar prize he thinks he’s won. Old, semi-crippled and semi-senile, no matter how often his son or the police or both track him down and bring him home, he turns again and again to the east, like a bug resolutely set on a direction as mysterious to us as our interference doubtless is to the bug. His determination is as epic as the quest theme itself, and finally, in an effort to bring the affair to an end, his son takes time off from work to drive this irritable, alcoholic, indefatigable old man from their home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where, Dern believes, his million dollar prize is waiting for him.
So, a two-hander where one of the people is a taciturn, monosyllabic alcoholic sliding into senility, and the other isn’t much more verbal himself. That should be a riveting laugh riot.
Actually, it is not only very funny and very moving, but also very compelling. Writer Bob Nelson hails from Yankton, South Dakota and knows his world inside out. It just so happens I’ve done a lot of hunting in both South Dakota and Nebraska (I do love those great rolling open spaces where the horizon tempts you on and on, ever farther, even as it fades constantly in front of you) and I was caught up in the almost documentary feel with which director Alexander Payne imbues his movie, catching the look, the feel, the sounds, even the texture of that lovely open land and the worn, weather-beaten small towns. He chose to shoot in black and white, which adds to the documentary feel and gives the movie the same kind of vivid, starkly beautiful look we associate with Dorothea Lange’s dustbowl photographs. But more than that: to continue the documentary analogy, the performances in Nebraska manage to achieve so completely the illusion of reality that you find yourself wondering if these are actors, or if Payne simply found actual residents of that small-town world and pulled performances out of them. Bruce Dern is obviously Bruce Dern, but even there I found myself wondering if I was actually watching a great performance, or if maybe he was getting a little gaga with age. When you get caught up in the illusion of reality to that degree, you know you’re watching a hell of movie.
A quick example of Payne’s deft touch: father and son stop to spend the night in the small town where Dern grew up, and there is a scene outside, at night, that takes place while in the background we hear the distant monotonous barking of a dog. That sound effect has nothing to do with the scene being played or with the larger action of the movie, but it anchors us in the reality of small town, semi-rural life.
Bruce Dern is Bruce Dern, and another national treasure who makes an appearance is the great Stacy Keach, but who are these other actors? Will Forte as the patient, decent son driving his father east, Bob Odenkirk as the other son who follows with their mother—Mother, what a mother!—played to acid-tongued perfection by June Squibb, the various family members and distant relations and former neighbors in the small town where they stop, all of these are the real and familiar individuals we might meet in any small prairie town. It’s an old truism that whenever an artist creates a real and true and believable individual, he ends up creating an archetype. With that in mind, Nelson, Payne, and cast have captured an essence of the America most people fly over, and they have done it with gentle good humor.
Along the way, and especially in the small town stop-over, we and Will Forte learn much about Bruce Dern and the past that shaped him, which is to say we learn much about ourselves. There is no million dollar prize, of course, but that’s the beauty of all quests: sometimes the prize we find, while not the one we set out for or even thought we wanted, is far more precious than gold.
Long, long ago, when the world and I were both much younger, I went camping in Algonquin Provincial Park with a very pretty girl and my two dogs. It was in the beginning of the off-season, so while the weather was lovely, we had the place pretty much to ourselves; in fact, I don’t remember seeing another human being in the two days we were there.
We had cooked a meal, sat around the fire talking, and were just heading into our little tent for the night when suddenly a pack of wolves began to howl. It froze me in my tracks, and the effect on the dogs was amazing. One of them was a big, tough Briard, but even as their hackles went up and they both began to growl, I could tell they were terrified. To be honest, my hackles went up and I began to growl, with about the same degree of conviction and for much the same reason.
I know now that the pack was probably about a mile away, or even more, and that it was probably just a normal pack of wolves, not the several hundred animals it sounded like, but at the time, all by ourselves, barely out of our teens (we were on our way back to college), unarmed, it was a—you should pardon the expression—hair-raising experience. For all four of us.
Since then, I have heard other wolves, seen fresh tracks while bird-hunting in northern Minnesota, visited with some semi-tame ones in a scientific compound where the wolves were part of a genetic testing program, and I have also grown up considerably and learned a good deal more about this most magnificent ancestor of my dogs and ancestor of the genetic tribal memory—for good or ill—that runs in each of us.
So it was with mixed feelings that I received link to an article in the Idaho Statesman with the following headline: “Lawmakers: $2M aimed to kill more than 500 wolves.” Putting aside the less than graceful headline, the lead paragraph succinctly sums it all up:
“Republicans promoting Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s proposed $2 million taxpayer-financed fund to kill wolves hope the cash helps reduce Idaho’s population of these canine predators by more than 500 animals, to just 150 wolves in 15 packs.”
Predictably, the so-called animal rights organization Defenders of Wildlife (an organization with only a “D” rating—as in A, B, C, D, and F—for spending only forty-three percent of its total expenses on its programs) denounced the proposed action.
“This is just another example of Idaho’s unwillingness to manage wolves as a wildlife species,” said Jonathan Proctor, a Defenders of Wildlife spokesman in Denver. “They’re singling out wolves for special persecution. The majority of Idahoans expect state managers to manage all wildlife appropriately and not exterminate them to the bare minimum they think they can get away with.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have no desire to hunt wolves. (I don’t even like to shoot the ubiquitous coyote, though I have done so at the specific request of ranchers.) And in the spirit of full disclosure, I have little regard for animal rights organizations, with their cuddly portrayal of a Disneyesque natural world and their use of emotion to trump both science and reality. But in this particular case, I happen to agree with Defenders of Wildlife. Not because I want to cuddle up with wolves in my tent, but because this makes less than zero economic sense. Let’s review the bidding.
Wolves in Idaho have drastically reduced both the resident deer and elk herds. The elk herds have been particularly hard hit. Elk hunting represents a significant economic boost to the economy in Idaho, and the wolves’ reduction of the herds has had a predictable effect on outfitters, with some of them simply closing their doors and looking for other lines of work.
The economy is hurting generally throughout America. When the economy is in the toilet, fewer people go hunting. When there are no elk to attract hunters, even those lucky people with extra cash go elsewhere where they can reasonably expect to find elk. State fish and game departments are funded largely by hunters and fishermen. State fish and game departments are responsible for managing fish and game in their respective states. Since the economy in Idaho is no better off than the American economy generally, and they no longer have the hunters coming into the state in the numbers they used to, their fish and game department is feeling the pinch.
Soooooo….. The Idaho state legislature puts two and two together and comes up with three. Instead of offering many more, and more liberal, wolf-hunting licenses and various inducements to encourage hunters to come to Idaho and spend the money that would put much needed revenue into the fish and game department’s coffers, the state legislature decides to spend the tax-payer’s money to achieve the same goal they are going to spend two million dollars on.
I know very well that hunters, even in large numbers, are very unlikely ever to take five hundred wolves in a single season, but it would reduce the wolf population while bringing in money, and hunting pressure has been shown to have an impact on the surviving animals, making them more wary around humans and consequently less likely to prey on domestic animals.
Didn’t the politicians in Idaho learn anything from the boneheads in California? Twenty years ago, voters in California, influenced by cuddly and emotional anti-hunting campaigns that had nothing to do with reality, banned mountain lion hunting over the objections of the scientists at the California Dept. of Fish and Game. Today, the very predictable result is: an out of control mountain lion population; increased (and historically unprecedented) confrontations between humans and the big cats; drastic reduction of deer numbers in some areas and (more importantly) of desert big horn numbers in the mountains east of San Diego, where the sheep had been re-introduced at the tax payer’s considerable expense; loss of revenue from mountain lion hunting fees, a loss that the most under-funded (California game wardens earn less than any other form of law enforcement in the state) fish and game department (relative to the population) in the nation could greatly use; and an increased expense for the tax payers because today professional hunters are paid (by the tax payer) to kill more mountain lions annually than were taken by hunters who paid for the privilege twenty years ago. Yep, that sure makes a lot of sense, by golly. They say that California leads the way for the rest of the nation. Is that supposed to be a good thing? Not if Idaho imitating the Golden State is an example.
Fistfuls of Balloons!
Now and Then
Now that the sawdust of threescore and ten
Is running out through legs that will not bear
The body that outlives them, how and where
To park becomes the question. Not on Cen-
tral’s carpet, wall to wall—so boundless when
It flew beneath the feet of boyhood’s hare
And hounds—or in the Luxembourg, a fair
Hour’s walk to the Bois for me at twen-
ty, “Paris twenties” still in store.
Settle for peddling in a pinwheel chair,
Forever seated, in my hand a stick,
Before I take no turns about and sip
The last time from too long a stirrup cup?
No! Fistfuls of balloons shall bear me up!
“The best thing for the inside of the man is the outside of a horse…”
Attributed variously to R.F. Delderfeld, Will Rogers, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Benjamin Disraeli, and others
“…but only if you keep the horse between you and the ground.”
Attributed to Jameson Parker
It began, as so many disasters do, with everything going right. I had had a good morning at my desk, putting the final glossy touches on a magazine article, simonizing and buffing, flicking motes of dust off chrome words. I did some work on a book. I took care of a multitude of correspondence. I wrote a blog that has still to be posted at some future date: its subject matter, peripherally, is death, and it doesn’t seem to interest me now in quite the same abstract way.
After lunch I did a little therapy. I had had extensive rotator cuff surgery four months earlier and things went somehow awry with the result that I lost some of the use of my right arm. It’s not nerve damage. The surgery center sent me to a neurologist who performed a series of tests (apparently perfected by the Argentine military during their “dirty war” to extract information from their victims) that proved there was nothing wrong with the nerves. I can vouch for that. My surgeon finally concluded that it was a phenomenon, uncommon but not unknown, he described as, “…the muscles going to sleep. It happens most often with knee and shoulder surgery. The muscles just say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do that to us, fuck you, we quit.’ Keep doing your therapy, and it will all come back.” So far, he seemed to be right. I still couldn’t raise the arm above my head, or even above my waist at most angles, but I was making progress, and I did at least some of the practically infinite number of exercises every day. Then I went down to the barn.
Barn? I know, I know. The world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove all told me I was a jackass for getting on a horse before my arm was completely healed. My doctor told me. The physical therapist told me. My bride, the never shy or diffident Darleen, in particular, told me so in emphatic terms that combined questions about my sanity, conjectures about my IQ, and numerous references to the long over-delayed development of my pre-fontal cortex. But…
I don’t want to go all Maxwell Anderson (September Song) or A. E. Houseman (A Shropshire Lad) on you, but a man isn’t granted that many days of perfection in his life, and there are few things more perfect than an early summer day in the southern Sierras. The temperature is just about what you would expect to find in paradise, the air is as clean and clear as a soap bubble, and something whispers in the wind that makes your heart hungry and fills you with a divine discontent, a longing to take your foot in your hand—or tie a bedroll behind your saddle—and ramble on toward an ever-fading horizon. And it’s not as if I hadn’t already been riding (my physical therapist looks at me blankly, as he might at a teenaged boy trying too soon to resume training for the football team; my doctor sighs and laughs briefly, contemplating more extensive renovations on his new house; my wife says things I shan’t repeat here) in the arena and even on stately jaunts out around some of the dirt roads near our home, in conjunction with said wife, I might add, who justified her going with me as supervision of a mentally negligible adolescent. But this time she had driven into town to pick up some groceries, and I thought I might sneak in a quick ride up the mountain before she got back.
There are some people—and I am one of them—who are constitutionally incapable of living their lives inside. Apart from any question of physical activity—and I have always been restlessly active—there is something about being outside that makes me feel more alive. Of course there are times when it’s fun to curl up by the fireplace with a cup of hot tea and a book, but all my life my first inclination has been to whistle up a dog and go for an explore regardless of rain or snow. It was one of the great joys of bird hunting. I never gave a damn about how many birds I brought home (a good thing, because I wasn’t any great shakes as a wing-shot) as long as my dogs and I had a good time, a good working relationship, a good stretch of the legs. When I was still just a boy, long before I was introduced to hunting, I used to think I was somehow different from other people precisely because of this constant pressing desire to be outside. Teachers in the various boarding schools I went to seemed to think there was something wrong with me for wanting so much to be outside (it was regarded as running away, and I was punished for it), and it wasn’t until I was a junior in high school and read Death of a Salesman that I realized there were others like me. In a speech in the first act, Biff says: “Well, I spent six or seven years after high school trying to work myself up. Shipping clerk, salesman, business of one kind of another. And it’s a measly manner of existence. To get on that subway on the hot mornings in summer. To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation, when all you want is to be outdoors with your shirt off.” I read that and an electric current ran through me: Yes! Yes, that’s how it is! It was partly why my first career choice was to be a large animal veterinarian; it would have entailed a life outside with animals. What could be better? Of course after I flunked chemistry I decided to rethink that choice.
But now, in my sixties, with artificial joints and arthritis and aches and pains, hiking is not as easy as it once was. That is one of the joys of a horse. Together, horse and man become greater than the sum of their parts, and I can go further and to more places than I ever could on foot. So on a glorious, God-given spring day, I went down to the barn.
Snoopy (that was his name when I got him; if I had been given a choice, I might have named him Pumpkin, that being his color, but no matter what, I would never have chosen the moniker, “Snoopy”) is, by breeding, the last thing in the wide world I need. He is a running Quarter horse, which is to say he is bred for speed, a Katrina rescue from a stable in Mississippi that specializes in breeding horses for timed events. His lineage goes back to some legendary Quarter horses, horses whose names are synonymous with blistering speed. (For those interested in such things, think Joe Reed and Three Bars.) All that breeding means Snoopy is, by definition, a reactive animal. When confronted by the unknown and unexpected he doesn’t buck or rear, but he also doesn’t react with a desirable and sensible hunkering down and waiting for instructions from the front office either. What he does is grab his ass and run, flat out. He has done this ever since I got him eight years ago, and those eight years have been spent with me trying to convince him that everything can be done slowly and easily. Someone started him well, but then someone else tried to turn him into a roping horse with crude and heavy-handed techniques, so when he and I got together, Snoopy had some issues. You couldn’t touch his head. We got over that. At the other end, literally, he is the only horse I have ever known who was afraid of having his butt touched. If you did it while in the saddle, you had better be hanging on to the saddle horn or he’d bolt so fast you’d go right out the back door. If you touched his butt while standing next to him, he’d hunker down like a wormy dog, about the most bizarre reaction I’ve ever seen in a horse. We got over that. The worst was his fear of a rope, another legacy of the same ham-fisted fool who created his other problems. I’m not a roper, but I entered him in a roping clinic, and while the other students happily chased steers around, I spent three days repeatedly throwing a lariat to port and starboard, fore and aft, around his feet, walking him over the line, dragging a log, and at the end of those three days he was pretty well desensitized. I worked with tarps and flags; I tossed things over his back and under his belly and around his legs, always waiting for that instant of acceptance, until I got him to the point where I could shake out a plastic grocery bag near him without his going ballistic. I gathered cattle on him. I rode him in the branding pen. I even roped a calf with him once or twice, an event made more momentous, and of greater historical importance, by my catching the calf than by his tolerating the rope. Every time I took him out I made a point of trying to take him to new places, expose him to new things, until one day, riding back from a nearby community, I had to ride past a house where a teenaged boy was practicing the drums in the garage. The kid—no Gene Krupa, trust me—was making such a racket that it rattled me, and while Snoopy bunched beneath me like a keg of dynamite, we made it past, and I pronounced him more or less trail safe. The only thing I never could get him over was ostriches, but since they scare me too, and since the nearest ostrich farm is way down at the far end of the valley where I rarely ride, and since the likelihood of my encountering ostriches in the normal run of events is relatively small, I let it go. None of this is to say that he ever became that most desirable of equines (bomb-proof); he would still spin and bolt when frightened, but fewer and fewer things frightened him.
“When one’s all right, he’s prone to spite
The doctor’s peaceful mission;
But when he’s sick, it’s loud and quick
He bawls for a physician.”
Doctors, Eugene Field
Grooming a horse with one hand qualifies as exercise. It doesn’t take twice as long as it does with two hands, but pretty near. Then I have to sling the saddle up one-handed from the off-side. It’s a forty pound saddle, but with momentum and timing it’s fairly easy to do. The bridling is—or was—actually the hardest part, because I’m not smart enough or coordinated enough to do it from the off-side, so I have to move my bad arm out away from my body and around his neck, using my fingers to walk my hand up his shoulder, then up and over his neck behind the poll. But Snoopy is a good boy, a sweet and willing partner, and he always does his best to make it easy for me.
We rode out onto the road and I long-trotted him north toward the mountain. I had ridden him in the arena with Darleen the day before, so I knew he shouldn’t be particularly high, but a half mile of trotting always calms him down, and I wanted to be cautious. Where the dirt road petered out and became a trail I slowed him to a walk and we went on another hundred yards or so to where another trail winds up into the mountain. I turned him onto that. After ten yards, without warning, he exploded.
It might have been a deer. It might have been a bear or a mountain lion or it might have been Sasquatch. It also might well have been nothing whatsoever. A horse doesn’t need anything to frighten him; he can do it all by himself. Whatever it might or might not have been, he spun and bolted.
Tom McGuane (Ninety-two in the Shade, The Sporting Club, and many other fine books, some about horses, as well as the movie Missouri Breaks) has written: “That is why runaways are so blinding, so explosive. A runaway is far more dangerous than a downright bucking bronc as he becomes intoxicated by his speed and his adrenaline is transformed into rocket-fuel.” Tom McGuane knows far more about horses than I, so I have no intention of arguing with him, but I am used to this with Snoopy and have never found it too alarming. You never try to stop a runaway. You let him go, gather up your reins, and gradually turn him and wind him down to a stop. Unfortunately, at this particular location, turning had to be done fairly quickly because there was a tree directly ahead of me, and while I thought I might make it through the branches, I knew I would look as if I gone through a shredder. And there was a pretty good chance I wouldn’t make it through anyway. There was a jumble of rocks and some kind of abandoned ranch or farm equipment to my right, so that was out. Couple all this with only having my left hand to work with and left seemed to be my best choice.
For a moment, everything went according to plan. Snoopy began a gradual turn to the left. He was still going out a flat-out gallop, but at least there was no obstacle. And then, without warning, quicker than thought, his feet went out from under him.
If I had turned him too sharply and he had dropped his inside shoulder, his feet would have gone out to the right and we would have both fallen to the left, but that wasn’t the case. Perhaps he stepped in a ground squirrel hole. Perhaps there was a gopher tunnel that gave way beneath his hoof. Perhaps the ground was just very soft there. Perhaps there was something else that tripped him. I’ll never know, but the effect was similar to the old-fashioned and lethal, and now banned, “flying Ws” they used to use back in the old movie days to take a horse and stuntman down. Because he was at a gallop, and because his feet went out from under him so completely, I was like the end of the line in a game of snap-the-whip and was slammed into the ground on my right side. I was aware of a log next to my head, which might be what broke all the ribs and my scapula, but it probably saved my life too because Snoopy started to roll on me—I could feel the pressure on my left side, immense beyond belief, and it might be his rolling that broke so many bones—stopped suddenly, scrambled to his feet, and bolted away. If he had rolled all the way over me, I would almost certainly now be the late Jameson Parker.
A quick succession of thoughts, all of them going through my head in less than a fraction of a second: an awareness of the log; a rejoicing that I hadn’t been able to lift my right arm to try and break my fall, because that would have resulted in another rotator cuff surgery or possibly even a shoulder replacement; a wondering how my feet had gotten out of the stirrups—not through any conscious volition of mine; a concern that Snoopy might step on the trailing reins and that the snaffle might hurt his mouth; a concern that he might have hurt a leg. All those thoughts—perhaps sequentially, perhaps simultaneously—in less than a flash. Then the pain hit me.
I have no idea why sometimes a severely injured body goes into a form of shock that anesthetizes, and other times the same body doesn’t, but my old carcass didn’t this time. I have had a lot of accidents and injuries and broken bones over sixty-five years of active living, some of them severe, but none, not even all of them combined, produced an iota of the amount of pain that hit me now. I have no memory of rolling forward and getting onto all fours, but I did because the next thing I knew I was in that position and roaring. Not screaming, not calling for help (no one would have heard me anyway in that isolated corner of the valley), but roaring, raging…
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
…against the pain with noise as my only means of protest. And as I roared I realized, with some other isolated portion of my mind, that I had broken ribs (How? How could I know such a thing without ever having broken a rib before?) and that if blood started to come out of my mouth it would be a sign that I would almost certainly never make it home. So I stayed on all fours, roaring, until blood began to drip onto the grass. There was a moment, very brief, but very clear, when I became quite calm and detached and thought, ‘Well then, this is the end of the line. The party’s over.’ Then I realized my face was wet. I put my fingers to my cheek and they came away covered in blood. I put the back of my hand to my mouth and it came away clean. I stopped roaring.
I turned my head. Snoopy was about thirty or forty yards away, grazing. I got to my feet. It sounds so simple, such an easy thing to do, but imagine a badly broken bone. Now imagine grinding the two freshly broken ends together. Now multiple that times nine, for it turned out, ultimately, that among other bones nine ribs were broken. But I did it; I did it because there wasn’t any alternative. Then I started the long walk over to my horse.
His halter was hanging at an odd angle, and as I got closer I realized the bit was out of his mouth. I must have been going into shock to some degree because I thought if I could get the bit back in, I might mount up and ride home. I tried twice—at what cost I can’t even begin to tell you—before I finally realized the halter itself was broken and unusable. I took the halter off, and after three or four tries I was finally able to get a rein around his neck. We started home.
One of the things I make a point of doing with my horses is to lead them at different speeds. I walk slowly, I walk quickly, I jog, I stop suddenly, I back up, I walk on. It’s all part of the training process, to reinforce the concept of their moving their feet to my whims, thereby establishing respect and reinforcing my role as CEO and majority shareholder of the corporation. With Snoopy, because of all that reactive speed factor, I would sometimes practice, both from the ground and from his back, making him take one step at a time, literally moving one hoof at a time. Now it all paid off, because one hoof at a time was as fast as I could go. I wanted to see if he had injured himself, but I was simply incapable of walking any faster, incapable even of turning my head to check his gait. I tried it once and the pain nearly put me on my knees. Snoopy would just have to wait until I got home before he received any attention. We hobbled slowly on.
I had told Darleen I was going for a ride, so I kept looking ahead, down the dirt road to the hardtop a mile away, looking for her car, praying she might return and see me. I was having trouble breathing, so every now and then I would stop and pant. Like so many other things in life, inertia is easier and less painful than movement, and there were times when I thought, ‘I’ll just stop and stand. Sooner or later someone will see me.’ But then I would remind myself of all the stories I had ever read or heard about people enduring far worse injuries than I, men and women who never quit, who never gave up, who never surrendered, and I would shuffle on. Half a mile, after all, is not so great a distance. Half a mile is an impossible and insurmountable distance, far greater and more difficult than Lewis and Clark’s little stroll around the block. Half a mile is not so great a distance. It all depends on your point of view.
I caught a glimpse of blue moving between my house and the barn, and I realized Darleen must have driven home while I was still outward bound. I saw her walk quickly into the barn and reappear with a halter in her hand. She made the quarter mile or more to where I was in the time it took me to cover fifty yards. She was terse, but she told me she would be back for me as soon as she had put Snoopy in his turnout, and I used the time to walk as far as our front gate, where I could support myself on the fence and wait.
“I think,” said Mr. Dooley, “that if the Christian Scientists had some science and the doctors had some Christianity, it wouldn’t make any difference which ye called in—if ye had a good nurse.”
Mr. Dooley’s Opinions: Christian Science, Finley Peter Dunne
The biggest revelation was the emergency room.
In the last thirty years or so I
have acquired a depressing familiarity with emergency rooms. My son suffered a head injury. I was shot twice. My neighbor sliced his fingers with an electric saw. I had a hunting accident in a distant state and had to drive myself to the nearest hospital (where a kindly doctor took my truck keys away from me, realizing I was going into shock from pain). My wife suffered a severe concussion when her mare panicked and hit her in the head. But all of these, either through good fortune or geographical accident, involved either small town hospitals or upscale facilities in upscale neighborhoods. Nothing prepared me for the realities of the trauma center of a city with a reputation—if one may use that word—for crime and violence, the only trauma center, in fact, serving an area larger than some New England states.
Darleen first drove me to the very rudimentary emergency room of our small-town hospital/clinic. They took one look at me (I am obviously making a metaphorical allusion to x-rays) and announced I would have to be medevac’d to the trauma center. They had already put an IV in me with some kind of pain killer, so it might have been drugs, or it might have been my natural frugality, but I made a feeble protest, pointing out that my insurance might not cover such an expense, and I certainly couldn’t afford it, so I would just have my wife drive me down to the city. The doctors gave my protests all the attention they deserved, and one of them observed, with dry impartiality, there was a very good chance I might not live through the helicopter ride and that I certainly would not live through an hour’s drive down to the valley. It was one of those observations that doesn’t really allow for a witty comeback.
I am not a big fan of flying, but a man doesn’t have the opportunity to kite around in a helicopter every day, so I tried to make an effort to enjoy the flight, but every bump—as I was transferred from hospital bed to gurney, wheeled out to an ambulance, transferred from that gurney to another, driven to the airport, transferred to the helicopter—tore another scream out of me, so by the time we lifted off, all I could do was hang on. To what? To the little handle on the helicopter wall by my head? To the metal bar of the gurney? To some semblance of self-control? To life? From time to time I would turn my head to look out at the scattered stars and constellations of farms and ranches and small communities below mirroring the stars and constellations above, but whatever beauty they possessed failed to move me. I remember the delicacy of the landing, the heavy heat of the valley night, and another scream as they transferred me to another gurney and wheeled that one into the ER, over a path, apparently, of cobblestones.
The joint was jumping. All my attention was on myself at first, but I was vaguely aware of a buzzing of activity all around me. I was stuck with this needle and that. I was attached to multiple machines and multiple IVs. An oxygen tube was put in my nostrils and a catheter in my penis. My clothes were cut off. A doctor expressed surprise to find one boot, spur still on, was full of blood; he was nowhere near as surprised as I. Someone straddled me and tried to flex my pelvis. I was peppered with questions, frequently the same one several times over. The questions most often asked were my name and birth date, my place of birth, my mother’s maiden name, and did I know where I was at the moment. I thought briefly of Willie Pastrano’s famous remark during his title bout against José Torres, when a concerned referee, trying to determine his condition, asked him if he knew where he was: “You’re damned right I know where I am. I’m in MadisonSquareGarden getting the shit beat out of me.” I was asked when I had last eaten, last had something to drink, if I was allergic to this or that or anything. I was taken for X-rays. I was taken for CAT scans. And all during this frenzy of activity I was peripherally aware—the way you might be aware of the hum of the refrigerator without actually hearing it—of a background thrum of other centers of activity, other curtained cubicles, other voices, other people, other senses of urgency, other dramas.
Pain, intense pain, destroys your sense of time, as of course do drugs, so I have no idea how long I was questioned and tested and treated. Whatever pain killers they had given me (I know there was morphine, but it may have been combined with other things) served only to dull the edge of the knife. What did help, more than anything else, was when I was finally left alone to discover the wonderful world of trauma in a city noted for drugs and gangs and poverty and violence.
My curtained cubicle was in the center of the ER, right by the entry doors, so the first revelation was how many of the patients were wheeled in by paramedics in the company of either county sheriffs or city police. At least one patient had been shot. One, a young girl judging by her voice, was arrested on attempted murder charges as she was being treated, the police reading her Miranda rights and advising her that if she attempted to leave the hospital she would also face fugitive charges. I thought to myself if she felt half as bad as I did, going anywhere was unlikely.
But the real revelation was the number of patients who were abusive, angry, combative, resentful of the attempts to save their lives. Because of the curtains I couldn’t see anything; I could only hear what was going on, but it was enough. One man complained bitterly and repeatedly about being compelled to pee in a urinal (the small plastic bottle designed for use in a bed; I used one myself three days later when they took the catheter out) instead of being allowed to go to the bathroom, “like a man, see, cause I’m a fucking man, you know what I mean?” Uh, well, actually, no, not exactly. Are you using “fucking” as an adverb or an adjective? Are you attempting to imply… Oh, never mind. The nurses patiently pointed out to him, over and over again, that he had been brought in precisely because he was so far gone that he was incapable of standing up. A patient immediately to my right kept cursing and trying to pull out his IVs and catheter, insisting he just wanted to get the fuck out of there. Another patient kept steadfastly and profanely denying he was on any kind of drugs, no matter how often the nurses assured him they weren’t going to report him, that they just needed to know what was in his system so they could decide how best to keep him alive. “I just been drinking mudslides, just mudslides, man.” I asked a nurse what a mudslide was and learned it is sort of like a black Russian to the extent it contains Kalhua, but after that, anything goes, up to and including rubbing alcohol. “But,” the nurse assured me, “he’s probably been doing eightballs.”
And on and on.
The other revelation was the behavior of the nurses. They were cursed, abused, reviled, resented, and denied the information they needed, and yet they took it all in stride. They combined medical care with psychiatry, maternal discipline, good humor, patience, and police work. And once, mixed martial arts apparently came into play. I have no idea what happened, but suddenly over the background noise of groans and moans and voices filled with pain and anger and fear and despair, perhaps my own among them, a nurse’s voice rang out thick with rage. “Don’t you ever do that again, pal! We have the right to defend ourselves and if I see you try and do that to one of my nurses again I’ll break your face, buddy-boy. I’ll break it open, and don’t you think I can’t do it.” I never saw the nurse who said that, but judging from her voice, I wouldn’t have wanted to tangle with her even when I was sound and healthy. Since there was no further trouble from that cubicle, I suspect the man inside had reached the same conclusion.
And later, sometime in the dark night of the soul, I overheard another conversation, and I repeat it just to show that no matter how desperate the situation, or how much pain and danger you are in, vanity trumps all. It was relatively quiet, and I heard one of the nurses who had been treating me pick up a phone. “I’m sending a patient up. Nine broken ribs, broken scapula, multiple cuts and abrasions.” Pause. “Horse riding accident. Right now we’ve got him on…” there followed a list of medicinal and chemical terms, then another pause. “Sixty-five.” Another pause. “Oh, no, you won’t need that. He’s not that kind of old. This guy’s got a six-pack.” Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. You bet your ass, Preacher. That overheard sentence almost made me feel like living.
Four days later, when I was allowed to go home, as Darleen and I drove out of the hospital parking lot and were still less than a hundred yards from the main entrance, I saw an addict on a bus stop bench clearly in the throes of either a fit or some kind of addictive seizure, and being resolutely ignored by the people around him. A younger me, a me younger and less experienced by only four days, would have stopped and tried to help him. I no longer had the Christian conviction to help my fellow man, or the strength to do anything about it anyway. I didn’t even point him out to Darleen, who was busy driving.
“…pain is a thing that is glad to be forgotten…”
Post Mortem, Robinson Jeffers
After eight or ten hours in ER I was moved to the Direct Observation Unit. This is one step down from Intensive Care, a fact that somewhat annoyed me because I was hoping to be put into a medically induced coma from which I would emerge, weeks or months later, miraculously healed and sound and pain free, Rip van Winkle in California. This short-lived fantasy was quickly laid to rest by some of things that were done to me in DOU.
There was blood in my right lung and that, more than anything else concerned the doctors. Apparently I was right on the border between surgery and observation, both because of the blood and because of the nature of some of the broken ribs and the scapula. The scapula was the bone that concerned them most. It is, I was told later, the hardest bone to break in the human body, and the fact of mine being broken, coupled with the way and degree to which it was broken, made them contemplate opening me up. Putting it in baby talk (which is how the doctor put it to me), there are three kinds of breaks: a broken bone which remains intact; a broken bone which is no longer intact and may be separated or offset; and a bone that is broken so badly that the parts must be surgically put back together and held in place with a metal plate. The doctors were debating this procedure for the scapula and some of my ribs, and intubation for the blood in my lungs. They also wanted to make absolutely positive they hadn’t overlooked any possible perforation of the lung. As the doctor, a Middle Eastern lady with a dazzling smile and flawless skin the texture of Greek yogurt, explained it to me later, “Very few people over sixty come in here with multiple broken ribs and ever walk out again, and the more broken ribs they have, the worse their chances.” I was grateful she told me this later, after it was confirmed I would indeed walk out—or be wheeled out—and I was also grateful they took the pains they did to ensure their diagnoses. Unfortunately, the pains they took they passed on to me, extra pains, additional pains, bonus pains, a sort of lagniappe of pain, a gilding of the ugly lily of pain. I am a dreadful baby when it comes to any kind of discomfort, and their precautions greatly exceeded any definition of discomfort. In fact, they qualified as a rare and exquisite jewel in the pantheon of agony, even with the morphine.
The test most frequently run involved x-rays. The x-ray technician, a stocky man with short gray hair and a short gray beard and halitosis, had the best method of getting the x-ray plate under me, a process of hugging me to his chest with one arm as I hugged him with my arm that worked while he slid the plate under me. It wasn’t fun, but it was bearable. What was unbearable were the x-rays that had to be taken with me rolled onto my more or less unbroken left side, a process that involved me holding (with my good arm) the hands of the head nurse and being held by him on that side, howling, as the images were taken. They were all—doctors, nurses, technicians—kindly, concerned, professional, and quickly efficient, but they had to do what had to be done, and I had to endure it.
The head nurse on the DOU floor was a man with some kind of peculiar psychological tic, an obsessive-compulsive disorder I have never encountered before, one that compelled him to talk constantly. He was very good at his profession, very nice, very professional, but the words flowed out of him in a constant meaningless unending and unbroken stream, verbiage out of a garden hose left running on high. Fortunately I realized very quickly that I didn’t have to respond to more than about one percent of everything he said, but it was a little disconcerting, disconcerting in the way it is to people of my generation who see young men and women on the street talking to themselves and only later notice some miniscule device in one ear or another. It always makes me think of the little boy in The Sixth Sense: “I see dead people.” Not an image I really wanted to have lying in a hospital bed with tubes running in and out of me.
The other thing they did while I was in DOU was insert a very fine shunt in my back. They ran it under the skin, from top to bottom, to deliver a subcutaneous topical anesthetic directly to the most damaged ribs. I was thrilled to have them to do this, but the sensation of the little tube being forced down my back between muscles and broken bones, rippling as it went, was one of the most bizarre sensations I have ever had; not painful so much as weird, as if some parasitic snake had invaded my body. The Middle Eastern lady with the yogurt skin supervised this procedure and explained it would help make recovery more tolerable, and by that time I was thrilled to accept any degree of weirdness or bizarreness or even pain that would ameliorate real pain.
They also provided me with my very own morphine delivery system, something I have since come to consider one of the greatest inventions since the first bread slicing machine was put into action in Chillicothe, Missouri in 1928. I had so many IVs going into me for so many different purposes that I am unclear if this was in addition to a constant morphine drip or not, but what it meant was that when the pain became unbearable, or if I was told I would have to be moved or rolled, I could press a button and deliver morphine into my system instantly. It had an override device that prevented me from overdosing. I tried pressing the button twice in a row once, as an experiment, when I was first made to stand up, and came to the conclusion that the override was probably a very good thing to have on there, even as I cursed it.
I was only held in DOU for a day, and then they transferred me to a room on another floor. For much of the time I drifted between consciousness and the sweet blessing of unconsciousness, so sometimes I would wake up with a nurse doing something to me, and occasionally a nurse or doctor would say they had tried to wake me and couldn’t. People, especially Darleen, kept trying to get me to eat, but even the thought of food was sickening. This particular trauma center is also connected to the local medical school, so heartbreakingly young men and women, little more than boys and girls, would come in and out, sometimes in the company of doctors, sometimes on their own, asking questions, observing, assisting, taking notes. Doctors would also rotate through, asking, observing, and taking notes. One of these, a tiny oriental gentleman not much taller than Darleen, solemn as a deacon at a funeral, came in and introduced himself as being one of the orthopedic surgeons, and I mentioned to him in passing that there was an extraordinarily sensitive (i.e. painful) place on my left leg, just above the ankle, on the foot that had held the bloody boot. Since I had walked a half mile home, I knew it wasn’t broken, but it hurt like hell and I figured I might as well mention it, and I offered the suggestion that it might be a bone bruise. He pulled the sheets back and we were both a little surprised to see the bottom sheet was filthy with blood that had seeped through from the cut on my heel. Someone had bandaged the cut somewhere along the line, but in all the excitement (Shattered ribs! Scapula jigsaw puzzle! Blood in the lungs! Breathing!) no one had bothered to look at it since. He asked me how I had cut my foot. I was delighted to be able to answer promptly and honestly. I told him I had no idea and that all I could imagine was that Snoopy must have stepped on me as he scrambled to his feet, and he must have somehow gouged out a chunk of my heel. He gently touched the spot on my leg, and after I cursed him, his relatives, his ancestors, his children born and unborn, and all his in-laws, he ordered x-rays. I protested, pointing out that I had walked home with no pain or trouble—well, okay, I exaggerate—and that I had already had enough x-rays to provide me with a lifetime dose of radiation, and that in my wisdom I knew this was a waste of time, money, and resources, both mine and the hospital’s. He ignored me as resolutely as the doctors in my small-town ER had ignored me, and surprise! It turned out I had walked home on a broken leg. It gives you an idea of the degree of pain in my ribs that I hadn’t even noticed.
The Chain Link Fence
“True Love’s the gift which God has given
To man alone beneath the heaven:
It is not fantasy’s hot fire,
Whose wishes, soon as granted, fly;
It liveth not in fierce desire,
With dead desire it doth not die;
It is the secret sympathy,
The silver link, the silken tie,
Which heart to heart and mind to mind
In body and in soul can bind.”
The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Sir Walter Scott
Everybody has different ways of reacting to the unforeseen, whether that unforeseen is disaster or death or winning a thirty-to-one trifecta at the Kentucky Derby. My instinctive reaction to getting sick or hurt is a sort of atavistic and feral tendency to hole up, to find that safe denning spot—a hollow tree, a small cave—and to hunker down by myself, licking my wounds. Darleen’s instinctive reaction is to reach out to others, to the network of family and friends and loved ones and neighbors, both to let them know, and to be buoyed up with the prayers and good wishes of good people. Since I was incapable of doing anything, and in fact spent much of the first few days hovering in a grey zone somewhere between sleeping and waking, consciousness and unconsciousness, awareness and insensate oblivion, the decision on how to react was taken out of my hands. This turned out to be a good thing. I was overwhelmed by the reactions of people, the expressions of concern, the messages, the prayers, the cards, the emails and phone calls Darleen relayed to me, the offers of help of any kind, the people who stopped by the house later when I was home, almost all of them wisely staying only a few minutes at most, trying not to tax or tire me. Some people (my sister, a friend in Missouri, a friend over on the coast) were so alarmed they had to be practically physically restrained from rushing to our house and trying to help.
While I was still in the hospital, Darleen faithfully relayed all this information to me, this outpouring of love and concern. Buddhists talk about how every living thing is connected to every other living thing in some degree or another, like the woven threads of a vast and infinitely complex carpet. Lying in my bed, uninterested in looking at the television, without enough energy, will, or strength to read or even hold a book (and I didn’t have my glasses anyway), unable even to turn my head far enough to see out the filthy and permanently shut window, I thought about these people and my connection to them all. I visualized my network of friends as a sort of chain link fence, a vast series of interconnected links of relationships spreading across the continent. Individually, each of these little pieces of inexpensive metal appear to be isolated, limited in function and importance, but woven together with the linking bonds of love and friendship they become, like a horse and rider, greater than the sum of their parts, a unified structure of great strength and usefulness, a source of comfort and support, a source, even, of healing. It’s a strange metaphorical image for a man who doesn’t like fences, but it meant far more than I can express to know each of them was there. And more: I heard for the first time in over ten years from someone I greatly loved, greatly missed, and thought to myself that the pain was a small price to pay for that re-connected link
Jameson’s Rules to Live By: 1) Reality Is Greatly Overrated; 2) No Matter How Bad Things Are, They Could Always Be Worse.
The head of the orthopedic team was a handsome Hispanic gentleman who was either a bodybuilder or a power-lifter, shoulders as wide as a church door, arms so big his surgical shirt looked as if it had been spray-painted on, and with the quick, easy, direct alertness of a pit bull. He and the entire team—my entire team of physicians, I say proudly—came in en masse once, and there were so many of them (the tiny oriental gentleman, the lady with the yogurt skin, a pulmonary specialist, others I had seen while still heavily sedated in DOU, others I hadn’t previously seen or didn’t remember) that they couldn’t all squeeze into the room. The Hispanic bodybuilder, asked a few questions, ordered an orthopedic walking boot for my broken leg, and they were gone again within less than three minutes, but somehow seeing so many physicians on the case gave me confidence. This particular hospital is old (even its new wing is old; the old wing is—from a strictly medical perspective—antediluvian), dirty, decaying, and it has a dreadful reputation as a place to go for any elective procedure. But because it is the only trauma center for many miles around, and because it serves a city with an exceptionally large and violent underclass of society, physicians there get a daily level of experience comparable to any major American megalopolis. As a result the hospital has a reputation as one of the best trauma centers anywhere, the place where all the law enforcement officers I know say they would like to be taken in the event of an emergency. So before he left I asked the bodybuilder what my prognosis was for recovery. I had horses in mind. I had riding in mind. It was the only time the bodybuilder became evasive. “Well, let’s see how you heal. Right now you’re at least eight weeks out from doing anything. Maybe more.” The Middle-Eastern doctor with the yogurt skin was equally hard to pin down. “It’s going to be a while before you’re able to think about that.”
No it wasn’t. I thought about it then and I still think about it now, but no one wanted to make any commitment to any of my hopes and dreams.
Doctors have to walk many fine lines: compassion and dispassion; warm encouragement and cold truth; diplomacy and bleak reality; the possible and the impossible; potential harm and potential benefit; others I know not of. This uncharacteristic skirting around a direct answer to a direct question rattled me, and for the first time it began to occur to me that I might be in more trouble than I realized, that perhaps certain parts of my previously always resilient and adaptable body might not be able to bounce back or adjust as they always had before. I lay there for a long time after they (My physicians! My team!) left, considering the implications and the possibilities.
I wrote a profile for Sporting Classics a few years ago about an artist, Andy McCormick, who specializes in an arcane and monstrously difficult process of painting hunting and fishing scenes on wild turkey feathers. I had known Andy casually for about a decade, but it wasn’t until I interviewed him for the article that I learned his story. Right out of college, bent on making a living somehow combining art and hunting, “in the church of the outdoors,” as he put it, he had an accident that left him completely paralyzed from the neck down.
“I spent three weeks in intensive care, and then the doctors sent me home. They told me the nerves were bruised, not severed, but there was nothing more they could do for me. They thought I’d never be able to walk again, or work, or move.”
His father, his girlfriend, his friends, they all pitched in to help care for him. He had to be fed by hand, cleaned, bathed, everything.
“There’s nothing to do, nothing you can do,” he told me. “You lie there and watch television until you can’t take it anymore and then you watch the hands of the clock and wonder what’s in store for you. I tried to stay positive because I knew if I lost the will or drive to go forward it would have a detrimental effect, but there were times when I would lie there and just weep with frustration.”
He recovered ultimately, miraculously, and after a long, long haul of multiple years he regained all his faculties. “I’m a lucky guy. I take nothing for granted.”
I have lived in my body my entire life. I mean that the physical, the things my body could do, were the only things I ever felt confident in. Not that I was a great athlete—a good middle-distance runner and a good swimmer, reasonably okay at karate—but those were the only things I had ever done well enough in school to get any strokes for. God knows my grades didn’t merit any strokes. And my choice of profession was at least in part a reflection of that. Acting involves intellectual choices as far as the interpretation of a role goes, but after that it is largely an intuitive and emotional process that relies on the physical body as the instrument that conveys that interpretation, just as a musician relies on his violin or piano or whatever. What is Eric Clapton without his guitar? What is Yoyo Ma without his cello? I once watched Larry Gatlin in concert when he broke a guitar string. He never missed a beat in his singing, handing his guitar to one of the roadies who ran offstage with it. But then Larry clearly didn’t know what to do with his hands. For a moment or two he moved them awkwardly about as if they were borrowed things that didn’t quite fit him, and then he solved his dilemma by happily playing air guitar until the roadie brought him another instrument. So I lay in my bed and wondered and worried, and I thought of Andy McCormick. Unlike him, I knew I would at the very least be able to walk again, to have some degree of autonomy over my body. How much, and how long it would take to get to that point, remained to be seen, but—like the little boy in Lasse Hallström’s My Life As A Dog—it’s important to compare.
In the meantime I had other challenges to worry about. The first was peeing. After three days with a catheter in me and massive doses of morphine, this most natural and easy of bodily functions had shut down, and everything—primarily physical therapy and getting out of the damned hospital and home again—depended on starting that function up again. Amazing to think that the bodily function all little children struggle to control at night after they’re old enough to get out of diapers could be something one might have to struggle to restart. I can remember the switch from crib to a big bed, and my horror and embarrassment caused by dreams of peeing that became reality, having to go wake my mother—a lady not noted for her patience and equitable temper, but who remained remarkably patient on this issue—and have the sheets changed, myself cleaned, new pajamas put on, and the lovely feeling of sliding back into clean and dry sheets. Now I lay in bloody sheets with a small plastic bottle between my legs and tried desperately to recreate that loss of control. I tried to visualize scenes of familiarity that might help: the bathroom I most frequently use at home; the secluded corner between the carport and the wood pile where I like to pee while looking up at the sky in the fond hope that some damned satellite will photograph me. (“Photograph this, NSA, Google, all you prying, spying bastards!”) I tried to remember physical sensations, smells, the taste of coffee (a diuretic, after all), the glorious feeling of relief one has when one had been holding one’s bladder too long. I believe it was King George VI who once said the most useful advice his father, George V, had ever given him was, “My boy, never miss an opportunity to pee.” I tried to pretend I had been holding my bladder consciously and voluntarily for painfully too long. I tried visualization techniques, auditory memories, imagining scenes and situations that might encourage my bladder to let go. But for almost a day it was like the sleeping muscles in my right shoulder, the ones that said fuck you after surgery; I sent a signal to my bladder, but somewhere along the way the lines were down and the signal couldn’t get through. Sometimes I would feel almost on the verge of success and a nurse or doctor would come in and interrupt, breaking my concentration. Finally, I tried turning on the television. My thinking was that it might distract me enough to allow the signal to get through from brain to bladder, and by God it worked. I’m not entirely sure what this means or what it says about the quality of television programming generally, but I was immensely grateful to Wolf Blitzer and CNN.
Is Sex Necessary?
Title of a very funny book by James Thurber and E. B. White
Horses are very dirty animals. Grooming them is a dirty business. Riding on dusty trails is a dirty business. At four thousand feet in the mountains, the June sun is extremely intense so, being an Irish/Anglo-Saxon slice of Wonder Bread, I always wear a Stetson, and I always slather on the sun block before I go out. After grooming, riding, getting slammed into the ground, and then dragging myself home, I was covered with enough greasy topsoil to sprout tomato plants. When I looked into the little mirror bolted to my hospital table, I saw that nobody had ever washed the blood and dirt off my face. The cuts and the blood gave me a piratical look. No heroic swashbuckler, but a non-descript and non-threatening pirate in a crowd scene, an elderly and somewhat moth-eaten pirate you would never notice in the background, one of many extras hired for the day, intended only to add a sense of variety and fill in space for visual purposes. “Hey, you! No, you, the one with the blood on the face. Yeah, you. Take one step to your right. Too far. Go back one inch. That’s it, that’s good.” Being by nature a clean freak, greasy and dirty were neither pleasant nor good for morale, and I requested help to get into the shower in my little room. This was denied for multiple reasons, not least of which was that I still couldn’t stand up, but the nurse told me she would have someone bathe me.
I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, no one has bathed me since I was old enough to climb over the edge of an old-fashioned ball-and-claw tub in an even more old-fashioned house in Washington, DC back when our nation’s capitol was still essentially a somewhat overgrown sleepy southern town, and I prefer doing things for myself. On the other hand, being bathed by a nurse who looks very much like Kate Upton is every man’s fantasy. Unfortunately, fantasy never quite lives up to reality, and the reality was that the act of sitting up on the edge of the bed was so agonizing that if all the girls of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition had been present in their bikinis, or out of them, with soapy sponges in their hands and roses in their teeth, I would have had no more interest than I would have had in a lecture on the characteristics of sub-atomic molecular particles. As it turned out, the nurse who bathed me, while perfectly attractive, was also professionally cheerful and matter-of-fact, chatting away about her own rather limited horse experiences, her family, her dog, and other topics I asked her about in an effort to distract me from pain. But the feeling of cleanliness was delicious. She got most of the dried blood off my face, ran her sponge over my hair, which I keep very short anyway, and went on to chest, back, and legs, and finally groin. It is either a testament to her professional matter-of-fact-ness, or to my pain, that my erogenous zones were at that moment no more erogenous than my hair. Or what’s left of my hair. That’s how it was for me. Of course, I’m sure that for her the rare and thrilling privilege of bathing a greasy, filthy, stinking, sixty-five year old wreck of a man who hadn’t showered in three days and who yelped every time her sponge passed delicately over his ribs, a wreck with an already atrophied right arm and not enough unscarred hide left to make a decent lampshade, a wreck with thinning hair, a wreck with unbrushed teeth and breath that must have smelled like a corpse in the sun, I’m sure that will be one of the cherished memories that warms her bones by the fire when she staggers into her dotage. But I can’t help imagining how it might once have been. I may be old and hurt, but I’m not dead yet.
There Is More Than One Way to De-Fur a Feline
The trauma center of this hospital is, as I have said, extraordinary, and it has a justifiable reputation as the place to go if disaster strikes. But due to budget cuts and the general economic uncertainty that affects both the nation and the state of California, the hospital also serves a far larger area and a far greater population than it should have to or was ever intended to, with the very predictable result that there are too many patients and too few doctors and too few nurses, and everyone there is constantly running as hard as they can just to stay in one place, rather like the Red Queen. A natural corollary of this was that when I needed something and pressed the button that called for a nurse—not to be confused with the button that raised or lowered or tilted the bed, or the button that filled me with morphine, or the button that turned on the television, or the button that allowed me to use the telephone—frequently there was no response. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; they were and are and always will be overwhelmed. But I noticed that the various monitors I was attached to all had alarms to alert the nurses in the event of a malfunction: if an IV bag ran dry, or a tube became kinked, or a monitor couldn’t get a signal. And the main monitor, the Big Kahuna of them all, the monitor that displayed and constantly recorded pulse, blood pressure, oxygen intake, and whatever else, had been set to go off if my pulse dropped below forty-five beats a minute.
Perhaps through an accident of birth, or perhaps as a consequence of being abnormally active ever since I first started crawling, or perhaps as a consequence of being a competitive athlete in one sport or another for much of my life, I have an extremely low resting heart rate. I’ve also done some yoga and some meditation, and I found now that if I meditated and concentrated on doing slow, deep breathing (well, as deep as I could without causing pain, which would naturally increase my pulse rate) I could set the monitor off at will and a nurse would come trotting in. So I had no trouble getting whatever I needed whenever I wanted it.
“Do not turn back when you are just at the goal.”
Maxim 580 of Publilius Syrus
As soon as they took the oxygen tubes out of my nostrils they started my breathing therapy. Four times a day, every six hours, whether I was awake or asleep, a nurse would put a mask over my mouth and nose and pump in some kind of mist that I was instructed to inhale as deeply as possible. Breathing with broken ribs is excruciating, which is why so many victims die of pneumonia: consciously or unconsciously they start breathing very shallowly, and that allows mucus and other fluids—blood, for example—to collect in the lungs and grow all kinds of nasty germs. Think toxic mold in your basement. The mist they pumped into the little mask was similar to the inhalant asthma patients use, and the idea was that breathing it in for ten minutes four times a day would help keep my lungs open and healthy.
They also gave me a little inhalant tool called an incentive spirometer, an ingeniously simple device to encourage me to use my lungs fully and deeply. By inhaling though it, the patient essentially replicates what the lungs do naturally during a good, healthy, hearty yawn. I was given instructions to use it ten times an hour and to monitor my progress with the little gauge on the side. And then we began physical therapy.
Physical therapy out in the wide world, for patients who have left the hospital and are attempting to resume their lives, means a gradual process of guiding the injured body back into normal patterns of strength and movement. Physical therapy in hospital means attempting to get the body to resume a pale, watery adumbration of the most basic and normal movements we all take for granted. (Both are very different from the rehabilitation that the radically injured have to undergo, the soldiers blown up by IEDs, the stroke victims, the paralyzed, all the poor devils who have to relearn the fundamentals that have been snatched from them.) In my case, as with most trauma patients, physical therapy meant overcoming the body’s natural tendency toward inertia and its equally natural fear of pain. In other words, getting my lazy ass out of bed and forcing myself to walk. One of my many doctors told me a physical therapist would come to help me stand upright for the first time and help me start to move. Having a fairly accurate idea of what it would entail, I asked if we could postpone the therapy until after the next presidential election, or until Halley’s Comet returned, whichever came last. The damn fool doctor must have thought I was joking, because he laughed appreciatively as he walked out the door.
It turned out two physical therapists had been assigned to me, Collin and Michael. When I first heard their names I had a lovely fantasy of being helped to stand and walk by two Irish terrorists…
Sure, it’s a fine soft night, so I think I’ll go down to the pub and talk a little treason with me comrades.
…but it didn’t turn out that way. Collin was a local boy built along the lines of a NFL linebacker and as prototypically American as Iowa on the Fourth of July. Michael was Chinese.
Getting out of bed. What a simple thing, such a natural, easy thing to do, something you never have to think about or plan for any more than you have to think about and plan for the act of breathing. Which, since I had to think consciously about breathing, and still couldn’t do it very well, pretty much summed up part of my problem. Everything I did, every movement, no matter how small, how easy, had to be prepared for, considered, planned with the kind of forethought that normally might go into a Navy Seal operation. Just reaching for the button that controlled my morphine caused enough pain that I had to do it slowly and carefully. I gave myself a shot of morphine (actually, this was when I tried to double the dose and realized that the override restriction unfortunately worked) and, slowly, by degrees and with their help, was able to get my legs over the edge of the bed into a sitting position. Michael stood in front of me, holding my good hand, his legs braced, while Collin hovered nearby to catch the falling carcass if things went south. I was advised—frankly, honestly, openly—that it was going to hurt like hell, that it would continue to hurt like hell for weeks to come, and that the only way I could fight my way through to eventual improvement was to try and muscle through the pain. And then, in one of those moments of total unreality that always strike me as unbearably funny, Michael told me to breathe deeply as I used my legs to stand. I started to laugh so hard it made me scream. I told him he was a cretinous, sub-human lowlife for making me laugh, and reminded him that breathing deeply was precisely one of the many things I couldn’t do. And then we went for it.
It was as close to the original pain of the accident as I could go without breaking something else, something new, but I made it. Collin unplugged all the various electronic monitors that recorded heart rate, oxygen intake, blood pressure, other bodily functions—brain waves, and the degree of political correctness of those brain waves, for all I know—and pushed the little stand with all my various IVs while Michael kept one arm on the elbow of my good arm, and off we went. It wasn’t quite as exciting as winning the mile in front of a cheering crowd of schoolmates. It wasn’t as exciting as loping a good horse or dancing drunk beneath the stars with the girl you love and the wind in your hair and that glorious sense of immortality you can only have when young and healthy and happy, but just the simple act of being out of a bloodstained bed, out of a ten by twelve room, out of the helpless confinement of my own body was delicious. I used to run a sub-five minute mile; it took me longer than that, and almost that degree of effort, to make it out of my room and to cover the less than ten yards to the nurses’ station. We turned around there, and by the time we made it back and I cautiously lowered myself, bit by broken bit, into my bed, I was so exhausted I fell instantly asleep.
“Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erhalten?”
Thoughts are free, who can stop them?
Title of an early nineteenth century German protest song.
That first brief round of therapy seemed to jump-start some process on the road to improvement. One of the things you do in a world that has abruptly become severely circumscribed is to create goals for yourself to take you out of the present world and its limitations. Some of these are simple and vaguely realistic dreams of once again being able to do chores around the property: cleaning horse manure, dragging the arena, clearing brush, playing tug-of-war with my dog, sitting pain-free and productive at my desk. And of course there are always the more immediate and realistic goals directly related to the process of recovery: moving the little gauge on the spirometer up one line; figuring out how to shift the newly, unexpectedly, extraordinarily heavy weight of my own carcass an inch without causing pain; peeing. Peeing is good.
My personal immediate goal was to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible, but I refused to go home until I could get myself to the bathroom by myself. Darleen was going to have her hands full with me anyway, not to mention picking up the slack for the chores I couldn’t do, and I was damned if was going to give her the inestimable joy of having to empty a urinal or a bedpan. I had cleared the hurdle of peeing, so I was free of the catheter. I had managed to stand upright and to shuffle. Now I would figure out how to make it into the bathroom by myself. I expressed all this to one of my nurses and she immediately set about trying to facilitate things for me. She re-arranged my IVs and the way the monitors were set up so that I could push my little stand myself, using it as a sort of wheeled walking stick. Getting out of bed was still a physical impossibility without someone to help me, but once upright—roaring, raging, cursing, and laughing at myself for roaring and raging and cursing—I could make the long and weary three feet to the bathroom door. Eureka! Freedom! Victory! Independence! Autonomy! And, eventually, home!
But there are other things I can do to get out of the present world and its limitations. Confined to a blood-soaked bed by pain and a broken body, I trot out all the cherished dreams I have kept in an obscure corner of my wish list, all the adventures and journeys I have resolutely clung to in a world that will no longer allow such things to be done. On one level, I know these things are not only impractical, but virtually impossible in today’s world, but as Browning put it, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” So unwitting doctors and nurses come and go, treating the thing in the bed they think is Jameson Parker without ever realizing I have left for glorious adventures in obscure corners of the globe.
I ride through the lovely mountains of Sonora, Mexico. Sometimes I ride alone, sometimes with a guide, sometimes with an old friend, sometimes leading a pack horse, sometimes not, riding through the absolute isolation of these dry and rocky mountains, the only sounds the creaking of my saddle and the horses’ hooves on the dirt road, my old Winchester .30-30, in its scabbard under my leg, watching always for the tiny Coues deer that live here, watching too for the sudden lean tawny flash of mountain lion as I saw it once in these mountains, hanging in the air in mid-jump over a road, the cat that follows the deer in a symbiotic relationship as old as both of them. I come around a bend in the rough dirt track, a full day’s ride from the nearest village, and there is one of the crude little whitewashed, red-roofed adobe line shacks the vaqueros use, a saddled horse tied to a tree limb waiting with endless patience, the cowboy himself stepping out of his open door, lean as a wolf, courtly as a king, greeting me with a slow, casual, unsurprised raising of his hand, offering coffee, passing the time, I with my dreadful pigeon Spanish that relies more on Latin than anything else. I ride on mountaintops, through endless vistas in crystalline air, through the occasional distantly scattered little villages where ladies in flowered dresses and rebozos smile and wave as they watch me with curiosity; where the smell of tortillas cooking outside on metal discs over wood coals is as pervasive and typical as the smell of sunlight on pines at the higher elevations; through the sounds of bells from church towers that were built before America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, was even founded. I ride through the past in lovely Sonora.
Other journeys through other countries of the mind: a once hoped for camping trip through the highlands of Scotland that would duplicate the mad scramble David Balfour and Alan Stewart (his pale eyes filled “with a kind of dancing madness”) took on their flight from Earraid to Queensferry. I hike with my dog—there is always a dog—through sun-drenched heather on vast open, treeless moors, puffy clouds accentuating the extraordinary blue of that northern sky, sleeping at night in a small tent, my dog beside me, the rain beating comfortingly on the waterproof fly, snug and safe beyond all reckoning. A bicycle trip through Ireland where I linger in pubs in the whitewashed little hamlets of County Cork where my ancestors were born (in County Cork, I mean, not the pubs, though on reflection they might well have been born in the pubs), drinking Guinness, listening to songs sung in Irish by pre-Raphaelite girls, listening to the stories of the most natural story-tellers the world has ever known, enjoying the mingled scents of peat and tobacco, the lovely warm bite of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, cycling on the next day with my dog to another hamlet, another pub.
I remember long-ago adventures and update them into future dreams of hunting trips with old friends in the Cedar Breaks of southern Utah, on the Uncompahgre Plateau, or the Wind River Range of Wyoming. The doctors and nurses think I lie there before them in my little room, but I sail off on all the adventures that were once dreamed of or even planned, but never realized, dreams that still linger in my own private world where Snoopy is bomb-proof and never needs to be re-shod, my world where strangers still greet each other with hospitality and interest and good humor, where there are no passports, no borders, no terrorists, no crooked policia on the take pointing their AR15s at me as happened in Cuauhtémoc, no dreary governments fencing in dreams with reality, no drug lords, no barriers, no limits.
“Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.”
An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope
My physical therapy expanded each day. The epic trek with Michael and Collin to the nurses’ station and back the first day, perhaps forty feet round trip. A slightly longer jaunt down a hall the next time, past a room with a bearded man lying on top of the covers, staring at the ceiling, one hand on his chest, the fingers opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing. Past a room with a man asleep or unconscious, one leg in a cast so massive it looked as if it might be something done for dramatic effect, a cartoon cast with metal rods running though it, a woman sitting silently beside him, watching him. As I went by she looked up and our eyes met; I smiled at her and she held my gaze briefly, and then looked down again at the man without any sign she had even seen me. Past a room with the privacy curtain drawn, but with the four small legs of two children, a boy and a girl, showing beneath, and inside the curtain sounds of laughter and hilarity, chattering voices. It was hard to tell if the laughter was because of the children or for their sake. At the intersection of two hallways I turned to go back, panting slightly from effort. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and looked past Michael down the intersecting hall. Someone had pushed a gurney over against wall, with a pile of sheets tossed on top. As I started to move again, I suddenly realized I could see a foot sticking out from the sheets. For some reason that image rattled me, like seeing the horrible photographs and drawings of old-time war images, when soldiers were given whatever rudimentary treatment was available and then pushed aside to live or die.
And then there was the physical therapy I did all by myself. The first was a solo trip to the bathroom to pee. It was a distance of three feet, but according to the clock on the wall, it took me over ten minutes to figure out how to use my one good arm to get out of bed on my own, upright on my own, push my IV stand into the bathroom on my own, pee on my own, and then reverse the whole long journey. Sometimes half a mile is not so great a distance. Sometimes half a mile is an impossible and insurmountable distance.
Once, after one of my solo expeditions to the bathroom, buoyant with my success, and with images of home floating enticingly in the air ahead of me, I went out into the hall and shuffled down to the nurses’ station, all that long and weary distance, all by myself. I was so carried away by my progress that I began feel almost as proud of myself and as puffed up as Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, right after stealing a motorcar: Oh, clever Toad! Brave Toad! Ingenious, enterprising, fearless Toad! And like Mr. Toad, I got my comeuppance. I exchanged a few words of cheery banter with the nurses, but when I turned around for the homeward leg one of them came around the counter and walked up behind me and discreetly tied two ribbons in the back of my hospital gown I had forgotten to fasten. I had left my best angle exposed for all the world to admire. Shades of Jack Nicholson in Nancy Meyers’ wonderful Something’s Gotta Give.
On what eventually turned out to be my last day, while Darleen and I waited for the body-builder surgeon to approve my parole or bail or dismissal or whatever they call it, we went on my longest jaunt to date, past the nurses’ station, around an interior block of rooms, and eventually back to the hall where my room was, a total distance of probably less than one hundred and fifty feet. As we came into the home stretch, two prisoners from the county work-release program came walking toward us, pushing a cleaning cart. In our county, prisoners do a lot of work in the public sector, from clearing brush in fire zones, to picking up trash by the roads, to washing police cars, but I was a little surprised to see them working on their own in a hospital. They stared at me with completely neutral and dispassionate curiosity, a weak old wreck of a man with a long fresh cut across one cheek, in a sling and an orthopedic boot, his wife pushing his IV stand, shuffling along at the blistering speed of tectonic plate shifts. For my part, still heavily medicated and surprised to see them, I stared back with an equal lack of manners. One was black, a still young man, perhaps twenty, not yet covered with the requisite identifying tattoos of his possible future life. The other man was Hispanic and older, maybe thirty, and had a good running head start on his tattoos. My drug haze finally cleared enough for me to remember that in the dangerous gang code of the streets, staring at someone was considered hostile and threatening, an act of “dissing” just as aggressive as the direct stare of a dog or wolf, an alpha challenge. In an effort to clear the air I said the first thing that popped into my head, “I’ll race you to the end of the hall,” and was rewarded a burst of delighted laughter. Two bursts, if you want to be literal.
“[I]t was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Home! Dorothy was right in The Wizard of Oz. There’s nothing like being away to make you realize how important home is. I suspect I slept most of the way on the drive up the mountain, because beyond the grinding triple-digit heat of the valley, and the addict having convulsions on the bus stop bench, I don’t remember much. I know Darleen parked me in the shade while she ran into our local market to get a prescription filled for me, and then we were back at our own house, the horses in the pastures, the trees fully leafed out now, but still with the pale green of early summer.
Getting out of—or into, for that matter—the car qualified as an Olympic event (degree of difficulty: 9.8), one that made me roar and left me dripping sweat and panting in pain. Darleen had to hold my good hand to give me something to anchor to, something for leverage. I am five feet ten and normally weigh around one sixty-five. Darleen is a trifle over five feet and weighs one hundred and fifteen pounds soaking wet and carrying her schoolbooks. Using her for leverage was not something I could keep on doing. But what choice?
When we went in, the cats were waiting for us at the door, but they took one horrified look at me, at the monstrous boot, the sling, the slow, cumbersome, shuffling gait, perhaps even at my unshaven face with its jagged cut, and vanished. It would be a full week before they decided I wasn’t something malicious and dangerous. I made my way into the kitchen and got myself safely perched on a barstool with my broken leg protected between stool and counter before Darleen let the dogs out of their kennels. They danced joyfully, Pete wriggling his whole body in the way of Boxers, they sniffed my boot, the rest of me, they gave me kisses, and then Darleen put them out back. We had decided my best bet was to use one of the reclining leather chairs in the living room as my base of operations, partly because of the reclining aspect, and partly because of the large arms that gave me something to push off of—with one hand, anyway—when I needed to get up. Darleen adjusted its position slightly, and put a wrought iron standing lamp by it, not for light, but as an improvised IV stand for the bag of pain killer feeding into the shunt in my back, and I slowly got myself into the chair, yelling with pain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would spend two full weeks in that chair, sleeping both day and night, waking, reading, watching television, and sleeping some more. Two weeks of only getting out of there to use the bathroom and to eat, two weeks of howling with pain every time I had to stand or sit or shift position.
I spent much of those two weeks in that chair thinking about this change in my life. Severe injury or illness acts as a sort of fulcrum between two different ways of being, the balance point on a see-saw. Before, I was one thing; later, sometime in the future, I will be something else. Now, I am neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat. I am, in fact, quite helpless in a way that I have never been before. I’ve had a boxcar full of accidents and illnesses and surgeries over the years, but with the exception of getting shot—where one bullet passed two inches from my heart—I’ve never come quite as close to death before, and I certainly have never experienced anything that left me so completely helpless, so completely dependent. Three days after my most recent rotator cuff surgery, for example, we had a snow storm that left our front path impassable. I was able to go out and shovel it clear with one arm. It took forever and it was not easy nor fun nor even comfortable, but I was able to do it. Now, I could do nothing. I could not, for example, get out of that chair unassisted no matter what. I simply did not have the strength. If Darleen had gone out and the house had caught on fire, I would have been turned into a crispy critter right where I sat. That gradual realization of my situation called for a certain amount of reflection. No one was able or willing to tell me to what extent I could hope to recover. All the doctors had indicated I would be able to resume “a normal lifestyle,” but a “normal lifestyle” is not the same as my lifestyle. If my life consisted of gentle walks around a suburban neighborhood with my dog, bridge games and bocce games, puttering in my garden tending to my tomatoes, and weekends on the golf course, perhaps those would be things I could look forward to doing again. But the orthopedic bodybuilder and the doctor with the yogurt skin had both been curiously evasive, deflecting my questions with wait-and-see, let’s-evaluate-how-you’re-doing, it-depends, let’s-not-think-about-that-now.
But I did think about it. Lying in that leather chair, I thought about it a lot. On the one hand (to use an extremely appropriate phrase, under the circumstances) I would eventually have all my extremities, so right there I was a hell of a lot better off than all the poor devils who come back from war to face life with multiple prosthetic limbs. (There is another minor difference between me and wounded soldiers: they are heroes while I’m just a dummy who had an accident.) And, to be realistic, I don’t have to ride a horse to earn my living. So I didn’t lie there and feel sorry for myself, but I did try to come to grips with the possibility of a new way of being. We tend to define ourselves by what we do, how we earn a living, what we do for recreation, what our interests are; we tend to gravitate toward other people with similar interests, a shared love of literature with this person, a common love of art with that person, a love of horses with a third, guns and hunting with a fourth, and now one of those shared doors was closing, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently, and I had to figure out ways of dealing with that. I had to think of ways to adjust. And one of the first things I had to do was be patient and let my body heal to whatever extent it was going to heal.
When I was a very young child, my sister used to drive me into frenzies by chanting gleefully, “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can/Seldom found in women, never in a man.” I would sooner be boiled in oil than admit it, but she was right: patience was not my long suit back then, and not much has changed in the intervening decades. Reconciling myself to doing nothing, to being helpless, was enough to make me pound my fist with rage, and I couldn’t even do that because it hurt too much.
“Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.”
Of Marriage and Single Life, Francis Bacon
One of the corollaries of being completely helpless is the ridiculous and totally unjustified pride I take in being able to do anything for myself. I’m talking about preposterously little things, things so ordinary and insignificant that it is almost embarrassing now to catalogue them. Being able to stand or sit without screaming. I don’t mean doing it by myself—I couldn’t at that point; Darleen had to help me, using her insignificant weight as an anchor—I mean forcing myself to accept the pain and muscle through it silently. (Well, “silently” might be a bit of an exaggeration; let’s just say with gradually less screaming and cursing.) And Darleen helped me there too, patiently reminding me again and again that only by bulling through would I be able to overcome the pain and eventually cause it to diminish. I imagine pain as something between an enemy and a sparring partner, with me reconciling myself to taking some licks just so I can get my own shots in someday. Brushing my teeth with my left hand. This is something I have had some practice with already, but now the degree of difficulty was increased, adding extra hurdles such as getting the top off the toothpaste with one hand. I can’t bend or even lean forward, so I add to the brushing an awkward process of learning how to use a cup to spit out the toothpaste without it running down my chin. Applying deodorant unassisted. This one caught me by surprise. I honestly hadn’t grasped that I didn’t have any practical way of getting the stuff under either arm, and it took some experimenting to come up with a solution, and when I did, I felt sort of the way Thomas Edison must have felt when he finally stumbled onto the right filament for his light bulb. It probably took both of us about the same amount of time. Figuring out ways to draw things I need or have dropped up to my good hand with my feet and figuring out ways to get those things into my hand without bending; thank God for prehensile toes.
This pride helped compensate for otherwise absolute helplessness. Peeing and cleaning my own bottom without aid were also points of pride, but not sources of pride; they were merely the avoidance of even greater and more humiliating feelings of helplessness and dependence. But taking a shower involved as much preparation and tactical forethought as climbing Mount Everest, and like a Himalayan expedition, it couldn’t be done alone. Each step of undressing had to be considered and then carefully, delicately executed. Some things I could do myself, but most I could never possibly do without Darleen. Without her, the intricate Velcro straps of my orthopedic boot could never be fastened or unfastened by me. I couldn’t reach them, and I hadn’t strength enough to pull them open even if I could. The special sock that covered the bandaging on my foot was as distant and unreachable to me as the mountains of the moon. When, finally naked—and painfully aware of the difference between this aging, broken, scarred, limited body and the youthful body that had once moved so effortlessly and could do so much—Darleen had to cover the entry incision of the shunt in my back with saran wrap and then tape that to my hide. The bandaging on my foot had to be pulled off—bloody, pus-soaked, ugly with the juices of the body—and discarded. Darleen had to stand and hold the little bag of pain killer at the right height (it was a gravity feed, after all) and ensure the tube did not become kinked in the shower door, or that the door drifted open. The washing process was slow and of necessity rudimentary, and when I was done, I could only dry my face and chest and arms. Darleen had to dry my back and legs, and then we had to reverse the whole process we just completed, taking off the saran wrap covering and re-bandaging the missing chunk on my heel. Getting back into my pajamas, the easiest thing to wear that I own or can even imagine owning, required Darleen’s help. I couldn’t pull up the bottoms alone. I couldn’t get my arms in the shirt alone. I couldn’t button the buttons. Shaving, something I have always been scrupulous about, was a luxury I had to abandon even contemplating. In the spirit of making lemonade out of lemons, I tried to cultivate a mental image of myself with a beard, looking both distinguished and dashing, rather like the man in the Dos Equis commercials, “the most interesting man in the world,” with a bevy of drop-dead-gorgeous young things hanging on my arm and my every word. Right. Dream on, Jameson. The best I could achieve was a sort of mildly respectable moth-eaten panhandler look, an amiable out-of-work-and-down-on-his-luck college professor holding a sign saying, “will write for food.” And while I am married to a drop-dead-gorgeous girl, it is well known that no wife since Eve has ever hung on her husband’s words or even regarded them as anything more than, “…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Besides, most of them are words she has already heard.
Pain Management Has Come a Long Way, Baby.
When I was a sophomore at Beloit College, back around the time Woodrow Wilson was in office, I jumped out of the third-story window of the girls dorm (the law was coming) and did all the damage you might expect to my right knee, so part of my year’s suspension was devoted to having surgery. Back in those days, partly in reaction to the kinds of abuses chronicled in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, morphine was regarded as a deadly, dangerously addictive painkiller that had to be doled out in miniscule doses, one small shot every four hours, and the rest of the time you were just expected to tough it out as best you could.
Today, doctors realize that controlling pain is one of the best ways to speed recovery, hence my own private morphine drip in the hospital, hence the other painkillers that were freely administered—and gratefully accepted—and hence the shunt in my back and the goiter-like bag of topical anesthetic I went home with. And hence too a wide range of powerful opiates that were prescribed for me at home and intended to be taken in various combinations. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a free ride…
I guess every form of refuge has its price
…and all the various opiates had various unpleasant side effects: drowsiness, dopiness, sluggishness (so what’s different, I hear Darleen say) constipation, a sense of experiencing life through a wad of cotton batting. So after about ten days I decided, with all my usual forethought, to go cold turkey. The doctors reacted in horror to that suggestion and prescribed powerful NSAIDs, and I made the switch to those. Again, there is no such thing as a free ride. One of the side effects of those drugs is intestinal bleeding, and I was warned to monitor bodily functions more closely than I had ever really wanted to. For about a week, nothing happened.
And then one day I shuffled into the bathroom. Darleen had bought a raised toilet seat, complete with arms to help me get up and down, an appallingly geriatric item that reminded me of time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near, something I am far too young and… and vital to need yet, something whose very presence in my house offends me. When we discussed it, I told Darleen that if I absolutely, positively had to have it, I wanted her to get me one with a manual transmission and a seat belt, but apparently they don’t make them like that. As I stood gazing at this thing and contemplating all the dreadful implications of it, I started to hemorrhage. Not internally—that would have been far more serious, but not as visually frightening—but from my nose. It was not a nosebleed; it was a cataract, and within seconds there was large puddle on the floor. To put this in perspective, I boxed for five years, and because I was a simply dreadful boxer, possibly the worst in the entire recorded history of amateur pugilism, I stopped an awful lot of fists with my face, but never, even when I sparred with professional fighters who used me as a heavy bag, did I ever have a nosebleed. Even when I broke my nose in college, it didn’t bleed, and now I was afraid I might have to take soundings before I could navigate my way back out of the bathroom.
Poor Darleen. She had to clean up the mess while I lay in my chair—pushed back as close to horizontal as it would go—with a rag on my face, coughing and choking and trying not to drown in my own blood. The rule of thumb for this sort of thing is a half-hour. If the bleeding lasts longer than that, get yourself to the nearest emergency room. Fortunately, as we hit the half-hour mark I could tell the flow was beginning to taper off, and so was my love affair with NSAIDs. I went cold turkey.
It was not easy. It was not fun. It was like trying to bull through the pain of standing and moving. The topical anesthetic delivered by shunt was the only thing I had left and by comparison it felt as if it had stopped working altogether. I kept reminding myself of injured pioneers being hauled for miles on bouncing buckboards without anesthetic of any kind. I reminded myself of soldiers after the Battle of Waterloo who prided themselves on being able to hop down unassisted from the surgical wagon after having a leg amputated without any anesthetic beyond a shot of brandy and a wooden dowel between their teeth. I reminded myself of my friend Bodo Winterhelt, the dog trainer, who marched back to Germany from the Russian front holding his intestines in his hands, and who then had surgery while tied down on a wooden table because there was no more anesthetic to be had in Germany in 1945. I thought of all of them, and told myself I was damned lucky little wimp.
For inexplicable reasons, the pain seemed far worse at night, and I would spend long hours standing in the dark at the kitchen window, looking out at the occasional car in the distance creeping down the hill that links our valley to larger one where the nearest town lies. I would try to distract myself by making up stories to explain the cars at three AM: a teenager, who had sneaked out of his girlfriend’s bedroom in her parent’s house and was now sneaking home; a less innocent version of that scenario…
On the other side of town a boy lies waiting
With fiery eyes and dreams no one could steal.
She drives on through the night anticipating
‘Cause he makes her feel the way she used to feel.
…and kindlier, old-fashioned fantasies of James Herriot-style vets heading for bed with the sweet smell of a new-born foal lingering on their hands; husbands and fathers with bleary eyes forcing themselves through the last few miles to see a beloved daughter, to wake up beside a beloved wife; a debonair jewel thief with a bag of rare gems slipping home with his booty. That was one of the least effective fantasies, because I could never come up with a realistic scenario that would explain where the hell he had found jewels worth stealing in this impoverished rural county. Cannes and Monte Carlo are many a long mile from my little ranch.
But I would limp slowly through the dark, or stand at the window, waiting for exhaustion to trump pain. Sometimes it would and I would get an hour or so of fitful and unsatisfying sleep before I was awake again, back in my chair, my brain every bit as useless as it had been on drugs. Other times pain trumped exhaustion and I drifted through the day in a haze.
“A Television Is a Box that Sits In Your Living Room and Fails to Live Up to Its Potential.”
My mother never watched an episode of Simon & Simon. My father was killed long before I ever amounted to anything, but my mother lived to see Simon & Simon take its brief place at the top of the television ratings. She used to comment to me in amazement about the number of people who would talk to her about the show as she ran errands in her little town in Vermont. She seemed flabbergasted to see her only son’s face smiling out at her from magazine covers in the supermarket. But she never watched the show.
I only once asked her specifically to watch an episode. It was a script written by the late Mike Piller and it was—and still counts as such—one of the best scripts I had the privilege of reading in over a quarter of a century as an actor. It was the kind of script that created a little electric current of excitement not only in me and in Mackie, my co-star, but in everyone involved with the show. We knew it was exceptionally good, and as we filmed it we knew we were doing good work. It was going to air the Thursday before a long weekend when I was planning to fly back East to visit my mother, so I made a point of calling and telling her about it, about how good it was, and how proud we all were—cast, crew, director, producers, all of us—and asking her to watch it. But after I arrived, when I asked her how she had liked that episode, she said, “Oh, well dear, your stepfather wanted to watch an opera on PBS, so we watched that instead.” I never asked her again.
I know from snippy comments made by my mother’s sister and various cousins that my being an actor was considered a source of embarrassment by them, that being a successful actor was a greater embarrassment, that being a successful actor on television was an even greater embarrassment, and that being a successful actor on a popular, lightweight, intellectually insignificant television show was the greatest embarrassment of all. I think my mother’s feelings may have been more ambivalent, but if I had ever had any question about her reaction to Simon & Simon, it was forcefully dispelled at her funeral when her oldest and best friend came up to me and said, “For God’s sake, when are you going to quit that dreadful show and do something worthwhile?” At my mother’s funeral. Since the lady who said it was someone to whom my mother spoke and confided in regularly, it gave me a pretty accurate assessment of what my mother must have thought.
I’m honestly not sure why this was the family reaction. I think it had to do with the concept that success should be limited to either intellectual, public service, or—least significantly—financial fields, and that popular entertainment was insignificant at best and distasteful at its worst. One of the phrases I most often heard from my mother when I was growing up was, “fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public places,” which is probably—at least in part—why she was so flabbergasted to see my face every time she bought groceries.
So when Simon & Simon became a hit and I started getting large amounts of fan mail I was very flattered, but not quite sure what to make of it all. And then one day I got a letter, the first of many such during the course of my former career, from a lady who described herself as a “shut-in” and thanking me for taking her mind off her troubles. I have no idea what she specifically meant by “shut-in,” or what her condition or disability was that caused her to be shut-in, but I remember thinking then that if that was all Simon & Simon ever achieved, if the only claim to fame we could ever make was that we helped someone get her mind off her troubles for an hour every week, that wasn’t a bad thing. And more: it was all the justification we needed for doing the show.
Now I find myself in the role of shut-in. It’s a temporary thing, of course, and not even completely accurate. I am supposed to do a certain amount of walking every day in my orthopedic boot, and I can do that outside on the path from the front door to the carport, back and forth, back and forth, like a prisoner in a cell, until my broken leg begins to protest. We were warned, Darleen and I, to be very careful—any fall might have serious consequences—so for the first week Darleen would walk with me, her hand on my good arm. Then she switched to sitting on the front patio and monitoring my slow and awkward walking until I would finally collapse into a chair beside her, and we watched the horses in the pastures below the house while the dogs dozed at our feet, occasionally snapping at flies or lifting their heads to contemplate the lizards doing their pushups in the sun.
So I’m not, literally, a shut-in the way so many less fortunate people are. But it is such a radical and sudden curtailment of my normal range of abilities that I find myself having trouble adjusting. I am slow and awkward in every movement, not just walking. Reaching for a glass of water or cup of coffee, turning on a light, standing up or sitting down, all these things, these most natural of movements, require forethought. Darleen must cut my food for me, and then the process of eating, of getting the cut food from the plate to my lips with my left hand, becomes an exercise in eye-hand coordination. Trying to avoid spilling food from the fork means feeding myself with agonizing slowness, taking very small bites, thinking ahead about how best to actually get the food on the fork and not on the floor. I was raised in an era when one was supposed to clean one’s plate (“Think of the starving Armenians,” was a sentence I heard constantly, though that was clearly a leftover—you should pardon the expression—from my mother’s youth, the Armenian holocaust having taken place over thirty years before I was born.) and now, apart from no desire to eat, the mechanics of getting all the food off my plate are more than I can master. The discomfort and difficulty of eating are greater than any discomfort of hunger.
I tend to sleep a lot—part of the body’s healing process—dozing off in my chair, and while I had thought this would be an ideal time to catch up on much of my reading, my energy level is so low that I usually find it hard to concentrate for more than a few pages at a time.
Enter the television. The medium I once starred on, where I once provided comfort and distraction to others, now provides both to me. Darleen and I watch a lot of news during the day, alternating between rage and laughter as we listen to the arrogance and mendacity of the people whose salaries we pay. If I had ever hired anyone to help me build a fence or weed whack my property who was half as dishonest and contemptuous and incompetent as the politicians and bureaucrats who thumb their noses at the American people every day, I would have run the son of a bitch off my property. But apparently on a national level, those behaviors only lead to success. When our blood pressure levels begin to reach dangerous highs, we turn to Turner Classic Movies. Darleen, having grown up in the business, is constantly amazed at how limited and ignorant I am when it comes to classic old movies, but the result is that now it is a delight to discover gems I have never seen. His Girl Friday and The Seven Year Itch nearly put me back in the hospital I laughed so hard. I’d never before seen The Searchers, considered to be possibly the greatest Western ever made, and based in part on the kidnapping of the mother of famed Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. (Not a close relative of mine, alas.) Cactus Flower, with the incomparable Walter Matthau, Libeled Lady, I Love You Again (and who couldn’t love Myrna Loy?), Kind Hearts and Coronets (and who couldn’t lust after Joan Greenwood with her delicious purring voice?). The Sunshine Boys was a marvelous revelation to me, and a trip down memory lane for Darleen, because vaudeville was where her mother grew up and honed her skills. Life With Father, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, How Green Was My Valley were the kind of sweet and nostalgic period pieces I am sucker for. And there were occasional bombs. I would have sworn it was impossible for Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn to collaborate with director George Cukor and still turn out a dreadful piece of Gothic garbage, but after we watched Keeper of the Flame, I realized even the greatest talent sometimes takes an inexplicable nosedive. It actually cheered me up a little, because it put some of my own disasters into perspective. There are also the more recent movies, from the last twenty years or so, that both of us somehow missed: Master and Commander; Dirty Dancing (and I remember Cynthia Rhodes, laughing and endlessly cheerful and professional on the set, weeping in her hotel room in Cape Town, slim and lovely in a bikini on a beach in the Indian Ocean, longing for her boyfriend, singer Richard Marx; where is she now, is she happy, is she well?); Four Feathers; All the Pretty Horses. And we happily watch movies we’ve already seen, but are delighted to watch again: Breathless; The Fortune Cookie; The Apartment; An American in Paris, The Wrong Box, Gaslight, Mister Roberts, The Thin Man, so many others.
Sometimes we watch Cesar Millan and marvel at his extraordinary patience with people who seem to have lower IQs than their dogs. We watch some of the real-life crime shows, most of which involve people who don’t appear to have grasped the fact that divorce is safer, easier, and ultimately less costly than murder. Sometimes we watch Jon Stewart, who has the rare capacity to find humor in the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the American political system. Masterpiece Theater, Austin City Limits, occasional nature shows on National Geographic, re-runs of Seinfeld and Frazier, I am grateful to all of these. For a few hours every day they have all helped me take my mind off my own troubles. And that’s not a bad thing.
“If the heart of man is depressed with cares,
The mist is dispelled when a woman appears.”
The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay
One of the unexpected side effects I should have expected as part of this painful and painfully slow process of recovery is depression. It’s not the paralyzing depression that came with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after I was shot, but rather a more subtle and insidious lack of will that I at first confused with lack of energy. The only forms of activity (if you can call them that) I am supposed to engage in are maintaining the breathing therapy with my incentive spirometer, and walking ten or fifteen minutes every day, cautious jaunts in my orthopedic boot and sling, up and down the path in front of the house, until one day I just couldn’t stand it anymore and walked down the driveway, where I could lean on the fence and have a conversation with my horses. Horses are greatly underrated conversationalists, and they are completely honest. They never interrupt or pass judgment or belittle, but they provide constant feedback, their ears flicking back and forth in interest, making you feel far more intelligent and interesting than you actually are. And when you do become repetitive or boring, they let you know immediately by looking off at whatever else happens to catch their attention. This wildly daring expansion of my horizons, first two hundred yards away from the house, then two hundred and fifty, then three hundred, left my broken leg throbbing and the rest of me physically exhausted, but it sustained me emotionally for about a week. It felt like progress; it felt like change. But then one day I found I lacked even the energy to do that. Thank God for Darleen. She seemed to intuitively grasp what the underlying problem was and with a combination of charm, bullying, and complaining about her own feelings of being housebound, she got me to agree to go for a drive with her. It wasn’t as if we took some magical and scenic mountain route or backcountry road. It combined a thrilling run to the dump with a breathtaking trip into town to the post office. Oh, wild excitement! But it worked. Just that little outing and I came back feeling refreshed and hopeful again. And grateful to my wife.
I’m Sorry, I Can’t Hear You, Darleen; There’s a Bug in My Ear.
After two weeks I had to go back down to the hospital for a check-up and to have the shunt taken out of my back. If that sounds like a dreary way to spend the day, you’ve never been housebound—chair-bound, really—for two weeks. I was thrilled to go.
On one level, it was indeed dreary. Being a public facility, the county hospital caters to the poorest of the poor. Some are the lowest level of humanity, the dregs and refuse of any society, the tattooed gang-bangers there to have the natural consequences of a violent lifestyle stitched up. But the others are those poor devils who always sat in the back of the classroom, the ones who will never rise above a subsistence level of existence, or understand why they will never rise, or perhaps even understand that there is another way of living and being to rise to or aspire to.
But just getting out of the house and doing something, anything, was a treat, a sign of progress, and I was looking forward to it. For one thing, I was looking forward to getting the damn shunt out of my back. It had served its purpose, and I was deeply grateful to have had it, but my little goiter of painkiller was empty now and I wanted to be able to take a shower without Darleen having to wrap me up like a piece of leftover cheese.
My bride is a remarkable and admirable lady, but she has certain, ah, shall we say, idiosyncrasies. When it comes to any kind of travel for any kind of distance and for any kind of purpose whatsoever, she reminds me of Sir Osbert Sitwell’s father. Some people might have considered Sir Osbert eccentric himself, but his father, Sir George (whose profession was being Sir George, though he was also described as an accomplished “genealogist and antiquarian”), was one of those Victorian gentlemen who refine and polish their eccentricity, raising the bar of their eccentricity, so to speak, to previously unimaginable levels. Whenever Sir George had to travel anywhere by train, he would insist on arriving at the station many hours in advance, and Sir Osbert devoted several pages of his multi-volume autobiography to descriptions of the entire Sitwell family and their entourage of servants sitting endlessly in uncomfortable, uninspiring, and drafty stations, watching other trains and other people coming and going to their various destinations, while they cooled their heels waiting for trains that weren’t even running yet.
That’s Darleen’s attitude toward travel. And our first visit back to the hospital was, typically, one she planned for like the D-Day invasion, only starting it all on C-Day. We arrived so far ahead of our appointment that the constantly overcrowded waiting rooms hadn’t even yet begun to fill. In fact, there wasn’t even anyone in the little cubicle to sign us in. On the other hand, it was probably a good thing we got there so early, because the clinics were at the opposite end of the hospital from the parking lot, and there were no wheelchairs at the entrance, so it took us hours to walk the long and weary and painful miles to where we were supposed to go. (The next time I went back, I was stunned to see how much the building had shrunk in just two weeks, how miles had been miraculously reduced to mere yards. I have no idea how they did that.)
The doctor removed the shunt, asked me how I feeling, and told me to come back in two more weeks. Just before he walked out, I told him that the impact of being thrown must have somehow affected my inner ear, because I now had a constant sensation of water in the ear, as if I had been swimming. He grabbed an otoscope and looked in my ear.
There are certain things you never want to hear your doctor say. “Oops,” is first and foremost, but it is followed closely by a surprised, “Huh?!” He pulled the otoscope out of my ear and I turned to look at him, but before I could even formulate a question he said, “You have a cockroach in your ear.” That too is something you really don’t ever want to hear your doctor say.
There was one of the fourteen year old medical students with him, and he handed her the otoscope and urged her to take a look. Sure, you bet. Why not? Maybe I could sell tickets to help defray my medical costs. She was even more surprised and more vocal than the doctor. “Wow!”
There was a delay while the medical student was sent off to get a forceps small enough to get down the ear canal, and while we waited the doctor regaled us with stories of other mysterious life forms he had removed from people’s ears, and I contemplated the general weirdness of having a bug in my ear.
As it turned out, the doctor had been fooled by the magnifying properties of his otoscope. It wasn’t, thank God, a cockroach or any other form of insect. It was the seed of an exceptionally nasty weed we have in the American southwest, a barbed grass called foxtail. Foxtail is a bad plant. In the long run, minus a doctor with a small enough forceps, you’d be better off having a cockroach in your ear than a foxtail seed. The end of the foxtail is very sharp and will eventually embed itself in tissue, and the barbs will ensure that it continues to work its way inward, rather like a plant version of a porcupine quill. Many a dog has had to have surgery to remove embedded foxtails. Many a dog has died from careless owners not recognizing the symptoms, or from the poor beast inhaling a seed. Fortunately, the foxtail had not embedded itself in my ear, but it was an impressive reminder of just how hard I had been slammed into the ground that a seed had been driven all the way down my ear canal.
“I am like a broken vessel.”
Make that “was,” baby.
There came a day—not so long in reality, but to me as interminably and irrevocably slow in coming as Christmas is to a five year old—when I went down to the hospital for my last meeting with the Hispanic bodybuilder.
The wait in the hospital waiting room was almost as interminable as the months I waited to be well enough to justify being seen. It is after all a county hospital, the only public facility for far too many miles around, and when emergencies arise they must be dealt with, while anything less than Death Imminent must bide its time. So while I bided mine for most of an entire day I read and watched the other patients.
It was like something right out of William Saroyan: black; white; Hispanic; Chinese; Filipino; Japanese; women with rosaries; a woman in what we call a burka, complete with a net-screened eye opening and three small children in tow; men and women on crutches or strollers; some in wheelchairs; a man with a monstrous neck restraint held in place by bolts drilled into his skull, like something right out of Frankenstein; slings and orthopedic boots like mine; casts; people moving well; people moving with tentative steps and outstretched arms; people alone; couples; friends; old; middle-aged; young; small children; a man in an Islamic kufi, seated in the same row as a man in a yarmulke; a panoply of faces; a panoply of the wonderful diversity that is America. Also a panoply of the poverty that is a less wonderful part of America, for this is where the poorest of the poor go, those for whom time is always more readily available than money. Not one of us there that day could have personally paid their hospital bill. I could no more afford to personally pay the costs of a night in ER, a day in Direct Observation, and three more days on a reserved floor for people who need special attention than I could afford one of the mansions on the cover of Architectural Digest. The cost of either was probably pretty much the same.
I don’t believe in handouts. I don’t believe in rewarding indolence. I don’t believe in Robin Hood politics, taking from the rich to give to the poor. I have never valued anything I didn’t work for as much as those things I earned through my own labor. And I know that if Obamacare is run with the same efficiency as the rest of our government, the result will be unparalleled chaos and despair and death, and that none of it will be the fault of the dedicated, hard-working men and women in county hospitals all across the nation, the doctors and nurses who do their best with a never-ending flood of pain and fear. I’m not convinced that the so-called “single-payer” system of healthcare will ultimately be a good thing. I tend to agree with Ben Stein’s assessment:
“Fathom the hypocrisy of a government that requires every citizen to prove they are insured, but not everyone must prove they are a citizen. And now, any of those who refuse or are unable to prove they are citizens will receive free insurance paid for by those who are forced to buy insurance because they are citizens.”
But how can we as a society turn our backs on the injured and the sick? If you took the combined annual incomes of everyone waiting there that day to see just the orthopedic team, it wouldn’t be enough to keep the whole hospital running for a single day. What is the solution? Do we become like one of those third-world nations where people callously and hypocritically walk past the suffering with a shrug of the shoulders saying, “God wills it?” Not my God. Yet how do we make it all work? How do we pay for it?
The Hispanic bodybuilder was as brisk and quick as ever, and those qualities coupled with his massive musculature made him seem like a force of nature, especially to someone who both felt and was in reality frail and frangible. He showed me the faint and indecipherable lines on my original X-rays that showed the worst of the broken bones (How do they know what they’re looking at? Do they make it all up as they go along, or do doctors have vision so much more acute than the rest of the world?) and then put up the equally indecipherable X-rays that showed the bones were healed. I took his word for it. He told me I was good to go.
“Can I ride my horse again?”
“That depends on you. It’s going to take a lot of therapy to get you back to where you were, but you’re the one who will have to decide if your reflexes are good enough to let you ride. It’s just like driving. You’re the one who has to judge how quickly you can react. If you feel safe and confident, then you can do it.”
We shook hands, and I found myself feeling slightly nostalgic about knowing—hoping and praying, actually—I would never see him again. He was a compelling and charismatic man. I didn’t tell him I had already started doing rudimentary physical therapy on my own.
I had driven myself to the hospital, and I drove myself home.
“The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his Heaven—
All’s right with the world!
Pippa’s Song, Robert Browning
Physical therapy is great! No, really! This is fun stuff! Imagine the kinds of things the Mexican drug cartels do their victims to get information out of them. That’s just what it’s like!
Let’s start with the fact that the whole right side of my body has the massive muscular strength of a paper doll. (Do they still make paper dolls? Does anybody even remember what paper dolls were?) Violent physical exertion, lifting a glass of wine say, causes unused muscles and newly healed bones to scream in protest. Ditto the wimpy owner of those muscles and bones. Now add to that the fact that the shoulder joint of my right arm has been in essentially one position ever since I had the corrective surgery on the rotator cuff back in February, three months before the accident. Trying to restore mobility to a frozen joint is… How to describe it?
My parents were highly cultured and adventurous people who believed in exposing their children to art and architecture and history in all the various countries we lived in and visited over the years. As a result I have been fortunate enough to have seen a lot of things most people have only heard or read about. In a castle—privately owned but open to the public—on a rock outcropping on the banks of the Rhine, part of the tour included a visit to a carefully preserved torture chamber down in the bowels of the fortress where, presumably, the screams of agony wouldn’t cast a damper on the dinner parties above. There were things in that room that would have remained in any boy’s memory: a metal face mask, designed to be heated red hot and then placed over the face of some lucky prisoner; a tool for pulling a tongue out by the roots, used on people reluctant to use their tongues for their intended purpose; an iron maiden; ingenious machines designed to slowly crush specific joints; and a rack. That rack was the sort of thing that just looking at it would have made an impression on any small boy, but in those days I was a rabid Prince Valiant fan, and I had recently finished reading a strip that included fairly graphic illustrations of Prince Valiant being stretched on a rack (he saved himself by a combination of cunning, imagination, a knack for sound effects, and good acting—just in case you’re worried) and the sight of that machine gave me several sleepless nights. Well, restoring mobility to a frozen joint is about as close to being on the rack as I ever hope to come.
The result of all this is that I vacillate between joy and delight in being on the road to recovery, and feeling petulantly sorry for myself. Let’s face it: whining and moaning when you’re really hurt is no fun because, after all, you’re really hurt and nothing, including whining and moaning, is going to make you feel any better until you start to mend and actually get better, so you might just as well shut up and endure as best you can. But when you’re well enough to enjoy whining and moaning, what could be more fun than to let go and indulge to your heart’s content?
But I was making progress. The arm was moving better, all things considered, than I had any right to hope for. The reigning world arm-wrestling champion wasn’t in any imminent danger of losing his crown, but I could measure progress in the weights I used, having graduated from nothing, to a paperback book, to actual (very light) metal weights. I was on the road to recovery. God was in His Heaven, and all was right with the world. I was looking forward to playing for sympathy with Darleen, plying her for comfort, impressing her with my raw courage during therapy. Totally useless, of course, because she knows me far too well to give me any sympathy for anything other than real and serious injury, of which she has had a belly-full in the last six months, and she knows well that my raw courage has been out of the fridge too long and is starting to smell. But it’s always fun to try.
“And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means…”
Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas
I dreamed last night I was young and sound again. In the manner of dreams the location was an indeterminate place that combined the best of Vermont, Virginia, and the southern Sierras. I was roughhousing with a dog who was also a combination of all the dogs I have ever loved, Boxer, Chessie, collie, Bullmastiff, Gordon setter, Pudelpointer, others, running with him, both of us light of foot, happy, healthy, with never-ending energy, chasing each other through the green and golden land, laughing and barking in a young and boundless world.
Steve Bodio used the following quote (or paraphrase) on his website (Querencia— http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com/ —in my Links) in a mention of my accident, apropos horses and riding:
“After fifty, the ground gets harder and harder until it opens to swallow you one final time.”
And if I knew the ground was going to swallow me tomorrow, I would open the finest bottle of wine I have in the house; I would eat the finest meal I could help Darleen prepare; I would call all the people who make up my chain link fence, the people I care most about, and try to make them laugh without ever telling them about tomorrow; I would leave light-hearted messages for the people I couldn’t reach; I would sit outside with Darleen and watch the stars fade into sunrise; and I would remind myself all during the night that I have had one hell of a ride, done much, seen much, traveled much, laughed much. It wasn’t enough—it can never be enough for anyone—but by God it was good and it was fun.
It was after we watched The Dallas Buyers’ Club that Darleen observed the films we had seen that were up for awards this year were all about truly despicable people. The one exception was Captain Phillips, where the eponymous hero—about whom we never learn enough to be really satisfying from an Aristotelian point of view; in fact we learn more about the Somali villains—is a decent, ordinary man trying his best to deal with extraordinary circumstances. But the others…
Blue Jasmine is about a sick and evil woman. American Hustle, while we come to like and even admire the resourcefulness of the protagonists, is about low-level grifters who make their living scamming money from people who can ill-afford to lose the little money they have. The concept of the hero, in its traditional, Aristotelian or Joseph Campbellian (is that a word?) sense, seems to no longer exist. I’m not talking about the cartoon heroes of early Hollywood (Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, et al in their white hats, with their superhero horses and helpless heroines clinging to their arms) but the ordinary, decent, Everyman heroes like the ones Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda used to portray, or even the flawed-but-ultimately-triumphant larger-than-life men who go up against overwhelming odds for the common good (think John Wayne in The Searchers). Everyman or flawed, they all seem to have vanished. In their stead we have—to go back to The Dallas Buyers’ Club—a crooked, vicious, drug-addicted, seedy bi-sexual who hides his sexual proclivities under an ugly veneer of homophobia. The opening scene, a sordid, furtive three-way, where Matthew McConaughey is screwing an anonymous girl while being screwed by some anonymous man, all of them standing in the chutes behind a rodeo (yeah, cow manure is always a sure-fire turn-on for me, you betcha), was almost enough to make me turn the damned thing off.
(Hollywood seems to have succumbed to the pornographic philosophy of film-making: it won’t be titillating unless it’s graphically portrayed, a flawed concept, at least for those of us who would rather do than watch others doing. By way of contrast, think of the scene in George Stevens’ The More the Merrier, where Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur, as the hopelessly in love protagonists, both fully clothed, are sitting on the front steps of their boarding house. He can’t keep his hands off her, and she desperately wants his hands on her, but she keeps dutifully removing them as both their voices get huskier and huskier and their breathing gets shorter and shorter and their sentences trail off into nothingness. It’s a scene played in a public place—extras walk by in the foreground—but it’s one of the sexiest pieces of film-making I’ve ever seen. Most love scenes today are reminiscent of those DVDs on how to assemble your [fill in the blank].)
A buyer’s club—the phrase was new to me—was apparently a phenomenon that emerged in the early days of the AIDS epidemic back in the eighties, and it referred to the desperate efforts of poor devils to stay alive by any means they could possibly afford. McConaughey plays a man whose lifestyle has finally caught up with him. The doctors give him thirty days to live, and he goes on a frantic quest to find illegal drugs in Mexico that might keep him alive. The only way he can afford the drugs is by purchasing enough of them to smuggle them back and sell at a profit, smuggle more, sell at a profit and so on, until he is finally making enough of a profit to attract the unwanted attentions of the DEA, FDA, Border Patrol, and various other governmental agencies. It’s a bravura performance on McConaughey’s part. (He apparently lost forty-five pounds to play the role, and for most of the movie he looks as though he had died shortly before filming began.) He maintains the essence of his character—despicable—throughout, treating the desperate men who come to him with their dollars with as much contempt as he treated the hookers he frequented in the drug-and-sex orgies of his earlier, healthier life. But…
The movie is redeemed by having the traditional Aristotelian arc of a man whose actions transform him into something he was not before, and there are two scenes that make you almost forgive this seedy hustler.
At one point McConaughey’s buyers’ club has run afoul of the law badly enough that he no longer has the money he needs to buy the drugs. He walks out of the motel where he conducts his business followed by the black lady who keeps his books, and he looks at the line of desperate men waiting for the help he has promised. The black lady is haranguing him about the lack of money and he interrupts her by tossing his car keys to her. “Sell the Caddy.” And he walks off.
And then there is a beautifully understated, underplayed scene near the end with Jared Leto. One of the few decent human beings in the movie is an HIV-positive transvestite played by Leto. More than just a decent human being, he is really the soul of the story, funny, caustic, vulnerable, affectionate, compassionate, and his relentless humanity and his completely non-self-pitying persona gradually wear down McConaughey’s homophobic carapace. In that scene near the end McConaughey softens for a moment just enough to hug Leto, and it’s a remarkable, magnificent moment, the camera lingering on McConaughey’s face as he tries to understand the new, more human, more humane, person he has become.
It’s Leto who steals the movie. There is a short scene where he dons men’s clothing (a suit that is several sizes too large for him) and goes to his respectable, upper-middleclass, uncompromisingly heterosexual father’s office to beg for money, not for himself, but for McConaughey, and that scene would move a stone to tears, both father and son unable to make contact, but equally unable to deny their feelings for each other. That sixty-second, maybe two-minute scene is enough to justify watching the movie.
The Dallas Buyers’ Club is well done, and has some great performances, but… But. Philadelphia said much the same thing better.