Lessons from Squirrels I: Mortality

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

–John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”

OK.  Pretentious title and text (which I hope to invoke again later) out of the way–

This post is inspired by two things, ten or more years apart.

Thing the First:  As readers of this blog know, I’m a morning person.  So it was around 6:30 AM, in a small town in Wisconsin, I was riding my bike to work, not yet far from home, when I came across a disturbing sight.  In the middle of the road was a squirrel–upper body smashed by a tire, but its legs were moving.  It was still trying to escape.  It knew death was coming, and it didn’t want to wait around for it.

Thing the Second:  This morning, this time driving to work, I saw a smashed squirrel.  But what was significant this time was a non-squashed squirrel that was sniffing at it and touching the body tentatively and solicitously.  A relative?  A mate?  A total stranger?  But it was not “playing” the way squirrels do; it knew something was wrong.  It knew it was dealing with death.

OK.  Maybe I’m being anthropomorphic here, but consciousness of death implies something.  These “lower animals” understand mortality.  And they don’t like it any more than human beings do.  And consciousness of death, well, that implies so much more.

This is something I haven’t thought much about since I took a course in “animal rights” back around 1980.  My final paper for that class was on the question of consciousness and its role in morality.  On these grounds, books like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs (which were among the books we read at Professor Sartorius’ assignment, together with Peter Singer’s work) are rather disturbing, in part because they privilege their protagonists’ species (as we do our own).

I remember thinking, while I was writing that final paper, about the cat that lived at my parents’ house and  whom I had known, at that time, for more than 12 years.  I think I wrote that I would have a very difficult time reconciling what I knew of that animal with eating her.  She was a person.  I was not acquainted with the squirrels to whom I refer above, but I am coming to think, bit by bit, that just as much as my cat, those squirrels are persons also.

Being a person means that someone is not interchangeable with someone else.  That applies to humans (and it’s something we all too often forget) as well as animals.  My cat (unofficially denominated “Miss Meow,” though officially “Samantha”) was not like any other cat.  She knew her home and her people and behaved in a certain way that no other cat behaved.  To be sure, there were commonalities with most other cats–a love of barbecue, cheese, and catnip–but so there are commonalities among most other people–a love of barbecue, cheese, and coffee.  And people are not interchangeable, either.

What makes us people–what makes us persons–what makes squirrels persons–is the recognition of the individual quality over the collective quality.  And to the extent that is recognized, mortality becomes a force with which we much reckon.  Each death of a human being affects me because I am a human being.  The bell tolls for me (and thee).  Each death of a squirrel affects all squirrels because they are squirrels.  The bell tolls for them.

But more importantly, we should observe that the death of another, regardless of species, to some degree diminishes us because of the individual quality of that being who has died–because of its loss.

Am I going vegan?  Not likely.  Vegetarian?  more likely, but see above, barbecue.  I’m human.

Still.  Let us, even in our carnivorous moments, acknowledge the individual, regardless of species.  The bell tolls for we.

 

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Where do the Children Play? In Flander’s Fields.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

(John McCrae)

I have a problem with Memorial Day.  It’s not that I don’t understand it; I do.  It’s not that I don’t have any skin in the game.  My brother served in the Cold War and later in a hot one, in Fallujah, and I have a son currently serving in Afghanistan.

No, the problem is a disconnect between what we want the deaths of soldiers to mean and what they really do mean, from a military perspective.  In ordinal terms, those meanings are (a great deal) and (not much).

I just finished reading We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, a commanding officer’s account of a seminal battle in Ia Drang, Vietnam.  While General Moore, the author, goes out of his way to humanize his soldiers, what is striking about the book is not their sacrifices (and let’s be clear, there was a hell of a lot of that; men seriously wounded who fought on, who tried to pull wounded comrades to safety, who literally threw themselves onto grenades to save their fellows).  What is striking is how little those meant.

The battle in the Ia Drang in 1965 valley wasn’t for some territorial objective; its rationale was simply to engage and learn about the enemy–to see how well men and helicopters worked together.

The consequence was that hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese died, hundreds more were wounded, hundreds of thousands of dollars of ordinance and equipment was expended, destroyed, captured and/or just lost.

And more importantly, the total significance of all of this death and destruction was no  more than that of a boxing match.

Once you realize that, you realize what war is about.  It’s about depleting resources.  In the cold war, the resource was money.  The US outspent the USSR on nuclear weapons and weapon systems.  No shot was fired.  We simply spent our opponent into the ground.

In Vietnam, the resource was people.  General Westmoreland thought a “kill ratio” of 10-20 enemy killed for each American soldier was acceptable. Acceptable.

But that that doesn’t take account of is that human beings are not fungible.  You can’t assign the same value to John Smith and Jane Black.  They’re different people, each valuable.  But war demands that we treat them as if those are simply the names we assign to two interchangeable parts.

General Moore’s book tries to humanize the dead and wounded and living by telling you where each came from, how old each was, whether they had a family, that sort of thing.  But the moment it does that, it ceases to be about the battle.  Because it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the battle whether it was a family man who gave up his place on a helicopter for a worse wounded comrade (and then was shot and died) or a slacker who tried to pull his officer to safety (and who was then shot through the heart and died).  Their humanity has no military significance.

The same goes for the enemy, who died by the thousands in the same battle, only of course, we don’t know about their backgrounds, villages, families, education.  Their hopes for the future.  They’re no more fungible than Americans, but here they are simply the enemy.

I am reminded of a scene from Harold and Maude:

Memorial Day celebrates the sacrifice, but fails to understand what is sacrificed.  It perpetuates the myth that these deaths were heroic in some meaningful way, special, when there was usually nothing heroic about them.  People meant something in life, but in death were merely cogs in a machine.  And that’s why I have a problem with Memorial Day.

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Big League

President (still) Trump has made the term “Big League” popular, at least in the form that he says it, which (still) sounds like “Bigly” to me.  But that’s not what I came to write about.

This morning there was an article on NPR about some college athletes who are likely to be recruited to the pros.  These particular athletes are in US Service academies, and the point was that they may not be excused from active duty service even if they are recruited by, for example, the NFL or the NBA.

But that’s not what I came to write about either.  Rather, it put me in a place to remember what my life was like in 1981.

I was a golden boy.  I graduated from college with a 3.78 GPA, no grade ever below a B, honor program, summa cum laude, having worked as a research assistant and teaching assistant in my program for more than two years.

And when I went to apply for graduate schools, well.  I applied to the best:  Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, UCLA, UCSD…and a few more.  I think I applied to ten in all.  I was accepted at every single one.

More important, I was offered a scholarship at all but one–Stanford declined.  I had a Route 66 of choices across the country.

So, not long after getting my acceptance letters, I set up a cross-country trek.  I would fly form Minneapolis to New York, then fly out to San Francisco (my former college roommate lived not far north of there), visit the schools in that area and then fly south for some more investigations before making my way back to the Twin Cities.

I landed in New York and a cabbie who didn’t understand English took me to the wrong neighborhood.  A nun got me on the right bus and so I got to spend some time walking Columbia’s campus, talking to students and faculty (including Robert K. Merton, who told me that you could tell Columbia was a Great University because he was still there).  Modesty is not a big property of academics.

After a couple of days in New York (including a harrowing experience taking a dose of insulin in the men’s room of a Morningside Heights pizzeria while a cop watched suspiciously) I got out of there and headed for what I thought would certainly be greener pastures on the West Coast.

The highlight of that trip was hearing about the assassination attempt on President Reagan while I was walking around the UC Santa Barbara bookstore.

I got home feeling like a star.  And since I wasn’t crazy about any of the places I had visited (for one reason or another) I ended up accepting the offer from the University of Chicago.

I was a star.

Then I screwed up, which is how I ended up as a software engineer and later a lawyer–but that’s a whole other story.

For a while, I was in the Big Leagues.

 

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Monday, Monday

 

Monday, Monday

It was the fall of 1976, the fall I started college, and the world was good.  I didn’t have a girl friend at the time, but I had a good friend who was a girl, A, who had recently arrived in the United States from what was then termed “Eastern Europe.”

We met in a language class at the University—she was on her fourth or fifth language, and I was struggling to learn Hebrew.  But while she communicated well in English, she didn’t understand idiomatic expressions, and that was where I came in.

We spent a lot of time going to movies and plays and restaurants, and generally getting A immersed in American culture, which was a lot of fun.  Coming from where she did, she was moderately conservative but skeptical of government.  Where I was moderately skeptical but a fan of government.

We got along.

As language students, we learned that there were “listening rooms” on both the East and West Bank campuses of the University, where you could sit with a set of uncomfortable Telex headphones while someone on a record spoke in English and then in the language of your choice.

The University had three “neighborhoods”—Stadium Village, the West Bank, and Dinkytown.  One day I was in the latter when I discovered a record store.  I don’t remember its name any more, but it had stuff.  I would end up buying music by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span there (before I moved to the West Bank and discovered The Wax Museum) but this one day in the fall of 1976 I bought a two-record set called The Best of the Mamas and The Papas.

The band had broken up eight years before (and that seemed an eternity in those days) but I knew some of their music, and I was excited to be able to share this with A.  I ran to our Hebrew class, and immediately after, dragged A to the West Bank listening room and put the record on.  We plugged in two sets of headphones and sat there for the full four sides, even though our ears hurt like hell.

When the record was over, A was wearing one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen on her.

The Mamas and the Papas.  It was just that way.

This morning, someone posted a link to “Monday, Monday” in the course of a discussion, and it’s worth listening to.  So here are some things you should hear, just in case you never have.

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Mothers Day/Fathers Day

If you had told me, a year ago, that I would not be celebrating Mothers Day this year, I would likely have scoffed.  It’s true, my mother was then 94, and it’s true, she had experienced a couple of health challenges, but I had just ordered flowers and balloons for Mom.  All was well.

And then November 1st came.  I had just gotten out of the shower when my phone rang.  Phones that ring at 7:00 seldom bring good news.  It was my brother, telling me that Mom had died that morning.  She had told my dad she had a headache, and he’d gotten up to get her a glass of water so she could take an Ibuprofen, and while she was drinking the water, she died.

My brother lived next door, and he’s a doctor, so he was immediately on the scene when Dad called.  He knew Mom was gone at once, and he called me as soon as he’d set the machinery in motion—the ambulance, someone to sit with Dad.  He was crying.

You expect death because it’s inevitable, but when it happens, it is a bolt out of the blue.  I’m thinking about Mom’s death now because my local NPR station is running a fund drive, and one of the gifts that they flog without mercy, is a bouquet that you can have delivered for Mother’s day.

Dad took Mom’s death about as well as could be expected.  I think he had known more than we did that Mom was approaching the end of life, but.  My brother arranged for a helper to stay with him during the days, but less than a month after Mom’s death, Dad was diagnosed with ALS—which most people know as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  It’s a fairly rapid paralysis that ends with the muscles that operate your lungs.  We’d noticed it because Dad was having trouble using his hands and walking.

My brother called in favors and shepherded Dad through the health care system, and the diagnosis was confirmed.  He had about six months to live.  Not that he wanted to live that long.

In December, Dad flew up to visit me and stay with my family over Christmas.  Due to a massive storm, his flight was diverted to JFK, and it took me four hours to make the two-hour trip through the snow.  He came off the flight in a wheelchair, thinner than I remembered, quieter, and for the next couple of weeks, he and I spent time together.  We went to a couple of movies with my family, my law partner and I took Dad to a casino—which he navigated on a small electric cart.  He read, we watched a Mel Brooks movie or two, we talked.

And then I drove him to the airport, and said goodbye.

My brother and I knew that Dad didn’t want to wait to die, so we looked into states that would permit physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill; we even went so far as to look into flying to Switzerland, which has rather liberal laws on the topic—I applied for a passport on an emergency basis.

But Dad was having more trouble, and one day in late February my phone rang at work.  My brother told me that Dad had developed an intestinal blockage due to narcotic painkillers he was on, and had elected not to have surgery to remove it.

The next day I was in Florida.  I arrived around 9:00 and went straight to the hospital, where Dad was a patient in the hospice wing.

My brother and his wife were there with their younger daughter, (their older was scheduled to arrive late the next day) and my three sons were there (T and my youngest stayed in New England).

Dad was pretty much unconscious, but I think he knew I was there.  That night I sat in a chair next to his bed and held his right hand until morning.  My oldest boy stayed with me, and we talked about music, guitars, kids (he has two), art, that sort of thing.  Each of us napped a little.  Around 7:00 I went to get breakfast from the cafeteria.  Dad hadn’t shown any chances.

March 1st.  Family came in and went out.  At noon, all of us were there except for my brother, and we went out for a quick bite.

We were back by 1:00, and not long after that, I noticed that Dad was taking long pauses between breaths.  I called my brother, and he hurried to the hospital.  The pauses became longer and longer, and something like two hours later, he died.

So there’s no Mother’s Day for me this year, and no Father’s Day, either.

 

 

A friend of mine told me that it took him over a year before he was no longer struck with periods of depression after his father’s death.  I’m hoping in some respects that this will be my last entry on the topic.  I don’t know how long it will be, though, before I see something on the news or take a photo of a flower and don’t think that I should send it to my folks. 

As I said, a bolt from the blue.  We all know it’s going to happen,  but we don’t know when.  So enjoy time with your parents, if it’s something you can do.

That’s it for now.

 

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Places I Remember (part X of N): SPBS

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Company Logo for St. Paul Book and Stationery

 

When T and I met, one of the things that I knew guaranteed that we would be in love forever was the fact that we had the same kind of enthusiasms.  Some people drool over cars or furniture; T and I drooled over office supplies.

For much of this, I blame St. Paul Book and Stationery, an enormous place on County Road E, not terribly far from the home of my youth in St. Paul suburbs.

You know how these days people go into a store and tap the keys on computers?  In those days, it was typewriters–manual, electric, and–at the top of the heap–IBM Selectric.  But there were so many other things.  Different kinds of papers (bond, erasable, drafting, carbon, onionskin).  Different kind of rulers (for many years, my pride and joy was a 6″ aluminum ruler divided not into silly 1/8″ markings, but with superior 0.1″ markings).

SPBS had desks, filing cabinets, folders, labels, all kind of good stuff!  And I loved it all.

I fell in love with other stationers–especially those near universities (I still visit college bookstores when the opportunity presents).  Clever folders still turn me on.  When I was in Germany and England in 1983, I would wander from shop to shop in search of cool things.  When I lived in Chicago, Crate & Barrel often had interesting stuff (though, being imported from Europe, it often didn’t play well with US paper).

The last decent stationery store I was in was in a town in western Wisconsin.  I had gone to that town to interview for a job, and I needed something to write with, so I bought a small pad and a decent mechanical pencil there.  I got the job, and four months later, after I moved to town, I went in one day and they remembered me!  But that store has been gone for twelve or more years now, swallowed by the Big Box retailers.

Staples and Office Depot and their ilk serve a function.  But it’s not the same.  In the old days, you could talk to people who knew their stuff–and there was variety.  Does anyone even make onion-skin paper anymore?  I’m quite sure that erasable typing bond is no longer.  Fountain-pen ink, sold in bottles, is a specialty product that requires ordering on the web.

The other day I almost bought a small pocket calendar to use for scheduling.  Almost.  If the kind I used for decades could still be found (academic year, blue weekly pages, soft brown cover, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket without peeking out, wire-bound) I might have.  But I didn’t.

T and I still visit office supply places on occasion, but they’re not quite the same.  That’s not all bad–I wouldn’t give up computers for typewriters, even Correcting Selectrics.  No way.

But I do miss them.

 

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Stuff and Nonsense

My father is thinking a lot about dying these days.

That’s not unreasonable, since he suffers from ALS with a poor prognosis, and since my mom passed away at the beginning of November.

So my brother and I have been discussing what happens next, and the will, and all that sort of stuff.  Ghoulish, but if you find yourself in this kind of situation, that’s what happens.

So anyway.

My parents have moved twice in the past twenty years; first, to Wisconsin, to be near my family.  Next, to Florida, to be near my brother’s.  They’ve shed a lot of “stuff” along the way.  And that’s as it should be.

It occurred to me this evening, as I was doing dishes, that I don’t think of my parents in terms of stuff.  Partly, that’s because they didn’t have much.  They lived, instead. They could have afforded a painting by a famous artist, for example, but instead would spend weeks in Portugal, or would visit Thailand.

I have lots of bits and pieces of trivia from them.  Mainly photographs.  But I also have one item from each of them that I treasure.

From my dad, it’s a screwdriver that I’ve had in my personal possession for almost 50 years.  It’s not unusual.  It’s flat-bladed screwdriver with a knurled brass grip.  Unscrew the top of the handle, and out comes a smaller, but similar, screwdriver.  And the top of that comes off to reveal the third size.

As I said, not unusual.  You can buy hammers that have screwdrivers like this hidden in their handles.

What makes this one special is that my grandfather gave it to my father, and my father gave it to me, and perhaps some day it will go to one of my children.  Not a memorial, but as an every-day tool.

From my mom, I have a coffee cup.  She was a potter, and made it for me when I was in college.  It’s a gorgeous flat denim in color, slightly larger than the typical coffee cup (of the time) and it has her initials in the shape of a swan formed into the handle.

Here’s a photo of me in my college office, c. 1981, holding that mug:

scan_20170109-2

So many things I no longer have–my beard, my youth, my “workers aesthetic,” that “Big Red” fountain pen in my pocket.  But I still have Mom’s mug.  It’s made for me, literally–I have big hands, and the handle is large enough to never cramp my style.  It’s held coffee, tea, herbal tea, water, it’s made multiple trips around the country, and I still have it.

Back to my starting point:  I don’t think of my parents in terms of stuff.  I think of them in terms of who they are.  I miss Mom; I’ll miss Dad.  But–whether or not I manage to hold onto these keepsakes–my parents are a part of me.

My brother and I will not have to fight over the good silver, the nice samovar, etc, etc.  They don’t exist.  But wonderful, wonderful memories do.

 

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