Humming along with the bass line of “Born to be Wild”
Playing on the radio at the laundromat
When I first fell in love with that tune
It wasn’t an old song
Nor was I an old man
With a grey beard
Washing my clothes
At a laundromat
Humming along with the bass line of “Born to be Wild”
Playing on the radio at the laundromat
When I first fell in love with that tune
It wasn’t an old song
Nor was I an old man
With a grey beard
Washing my clothes
At a laundromat
I scurry between the oncoming traffic and the sidewalk that’s closed for construction as I continue up Jefferson Street. Then I spot the hospital ahead on the left. It’s the first time I’ve seen it since they discharged me almost a month ago. My sister and mother drove me home that day. I remember saying goodbye to Gail, my nurse. All the nurses in the Telemetry Unit treated me well, but Gail had been especially thoughtful. I’m glad that she was on duty that last day to handle my discharge.
One month ago today they stopped my heart to repair the mitral valve. Of course, they kept my blood pumping and oxygenated with a machine all that time, so I wasn’t really dead, but I like to think of myself as resurrected anyway. By any standard older than a century, my revival was nothing short of miraculous. Is it any less miraculous because we know how it’s done?
I’m walking from the ferry to the hospital today (a mile and a half, almost all uphill) to see my surgeon, Dr. Eric Lehr, for my one-month follow-up. That’s possible because of a minimally invasive approach that the good doctor employed. Instead of breaking the sternum, he used robotic arms to enter my right side and pass behind the sternum to operate on the heart. I was up and walking almost immediately afterwards, and back to work within a week. Now, I’m able to walk three to six miles every day, and feeling more stamina than I had before the surgery.
I got to meet the robot before they put me under. I have to admit that I didn’t find it as impressive as I had hoped. Just a big, grey machine with arms. And it doesn’t function autonomously, so it’s really just an extension of the surgeon’s hands. But I still like to say that a robot fixed my heart — it sounds so geeky.
Thanks to the ferry schedule, I arrive at the hospital forty minutes early for my appointment. I consider going to the cafeteria to eat something. Then an idea occurs to me. I walk into the gift shop and pick out a small arrangement of African violets. I take the elevator up to the fourth floor, then find the Telemetry Unit. At the desk I ask if Gail is working today.
“Yes, she is.” They page her.
After a few moments, her slender figure appears around a corner.
“Remember me?” I say.
It takes her a second, then she puts it all together. “You’re the one who has a son living in California, right?” My son visited for part of my stay. I can see what she remembers.
“Yes,” I reply. “The surgery was a month ago, and today I walked here from the ferry.”
“Over all those hills?” she asks, incredulous.
“Yes, and I don’t even feel winded. I have an appointment with Dr. Lehr, but I wanted to give you these and to say ‘thank you.’ You made my stay here a very pleasant experience.”
Gail begins to tear up, and then she hugs me. She apologizes for stepping on my foot in the process.
“It’s OK. Thanks again,” I say, and then we say goodbye.
About a year ago, shortly after my wife and I separated, I felt hopeless. I had felt hopeless for the last couple of years that we were together, too — and getting out on my own was a bit of a relief from that despair, but somehow finally making the break and living alone underscored my lack of meaning. I planned to drag my wretched corpse through the rest of my life and breathe a sigh of relief when death should come. Everything I had ever enjoyed in life seemed embittered by my failure in family life — a failure that proceeded not from random circumstance, but rather from deep flaws in my own character. That’s not to say that only I was to blame. But I allowed others to take me places I had no business going nor any power to sustain. What an idiot I had been. For how long!
I took one vehicle, she kept the other. She gave me all of “my” CDs — the definition of “my” being anything that she didn’t want. She kept my Grateful Dead, Cars, and U2. She gave me all the ones that we had not played since we got together — a small but significant indicator of the sickness of our relationship. She had always controlled what we listened to or watched on TV. Oh, I was free to enjoy whatever I pleased, as long as I didn’t mind being left alone to my depraved enjoyment of football, Jethro Tull, or Mahler. Because I did love her, I preferred to forego these other pleasures in order to enjoy her company. But that did not help to preserve our relationship after all.
Thus, I began to rediscover my old CDs that I hadn’t heard in 15 years. When my wife and I first got together, I had been listening to Joe Satriani’s “Time Machine” frequently, and I remember that the sustained note at the end of the primary theme in “Flying in a Blue Dream” seemed to ask me a question about my decision to move in with her. Now, after fifteen years, it was asking me that question again. I never realized that the muffled narrative at the beginning of that song says “sometimes they act like they still like each other, and sometimes they don’t.”
I discussed this new appreciation of music with my therapist, and noted that especially music without lyrics seemed able to speak to me in ways that nothing else could. I’m sure it has something to do with going beyond language to unlock the thoughts and hopes that I’ve managed to talk myself out of. I said to her that I had a couple of Bruckner symphonies still to rediscover (the 4th and 7th), but that I wished I had the 8th and 9th instead (which I once owned on vinyl) because they both seemed in my memory to ask questions without providing answers.
Nevertheless, I popped Bruckner’s Fourth into my car’s CD player. I didn’t remember much about that symphony. I hadn’t listened to it in about twenty years, because it didn’t seem to fit my state of mind back in the early nineties after leaving my first wife (yes, there’s a pattern here). When I had listened to it before, my first wife insisted that I keep the volume down because (like all of Bruckner’s symphonies) it gets loud in places. So the piece contains much that I had never heard, or only heard subliminally.
The fourth and final movement grabbed my attention. Its phrenetic shifts in tempo and volume convey an almost insane anger alternating with flights of grandeur that suddenly collapse like bipolar delusions. Eventually, the movement settles into a dark and hopeless theme that might be a funeral march. A beautifully sorrowful lament follows, but then melts back into the hopeless, resignedly angry repetition of the funeral theme.
“This is where I am,” I thought to myself. “This music speaks to me.”
The theme repeats, growing more emphatic. Suddenly, briefly, a major chord shines out. “What was that?” I thought.
Then, like a seed planted, that major chord begins a series that builds on all that has gone before, step by step. Unlike the earlier delusions of grandeur, these steps are gradual and believable. I could almost remember some of them before they happened, but still I would ask myself, “Can it really be?” and then find “It is!” This continues to a most glorious ending, as the tears streamed down my face.
“If such a thing can even exist in music, then perhaps there is hope.”
This was the first step.
“You staying out here, hon?” the waitress asks through the half-opened door onto the balcony, with a furrow in her brow that has “You’re nuts if you do” written all over it.
“Yes, I will,” I respond, “if I can find a table not too close to a speaker. I think this one will do.” I park myself by the railing, overlooking Front Street. Perhaps they call it Front Street because this is where Poulsbo presents its best Norwegian style in quaint storefronts designed to capture the imaginations and wallets of its visitors.
My waitress Alicia performs her duties well, despite shivering under the gray clouds. Her multiple piercings and streak of violet hair are executed with a confident restraint that renders them nearly conservative. She carries on a friendly conversation with me two minutes at a time whenever she brings more coffee. Her half-closed eyes and ambiguous smile as she displays her neck seem almost genuine.
I’m not the only person braving breakfast al fresco. Across the street a couple sits at a little table outside the coffee shop. Or rather, he sits — she improvises a short, exuberant dance and then remains standing. A minute later she notices me. She’s visibly shocked, then smooths it over as if she saw nothing. Undoubtedly, she thinks I’m a spy — for his wife or her husband.
Yes, that’s them all right — I walked up behind them yesterday on Fjord Drive. I noticed their behavior then: she, playful; he, wary. He looked back at me three times before they both stopped in silence and watched me pass — not answering my “good morning.”
She says something to him, and they leave nonchalantly with their coffees — he, glancing around every two seconds. So, they must have come to Little Norway for the weekend. Getting away from it all — but haunted by it still.
What a shame, I think to myself, that anyone has to feel guilty about loving another person. It’s odd how romance, so often idealized, is nevertheless bound up in the social fabric of mutual responsibility, expectations, and exchange. And somehow, even thwarting the system is part of the system.
As I walk back through the pub to leave, I say goodbye to Alicia. “See you again, soon!” she says, and leans back from the counter towards me as if expecting me to touch her. “Sure,” I smile, and leave — keeping my hands in my pockets. I had left her a good tip — generous, but not obscene.
On a Friday evening more than thirty years ago a group of ORU students gathered in Ben Williams’ dorm room for prayer. Such gatherings were not unusual on “Fellowship,” the name we gave to the orange wing of E.M. Roberts Hall’s 7th floor. Prayer gatherings were not unusual anywhere on the Oral Roberts University campus, for that matter — but what happened to me at this particular prayer session was indeed unusual.
I was born with Amblyopia, and had only blurry vision in my right eye. My parents took me to one of the best eye surgeons available, and I underwent surgery at age 3. I still remember the nurse putting the anesthetic mask over my mouth, and the bright lights and pungent odor of ethyl alcohol in the room right before they knocked me out. After the surgery, my right eye was kept shut until it healed. An old 8MM home movie shows my sister sitting beside me on the couch trying to wink like I could.
After my eye healed, I often had to wear a patch over the left eye to force me to use the right eye, and strengthen it. I hated that patch. It wasn’t a cool, black pirate patch with a rakish strap. No, it had all the charm of a big band-aid, with the same odor and stickiness. The feeling of it sticking to my face engendered a visceral loathing for sticky things that still bothers me.
My right eye did become strong enough to see clearly. But I still suffered from a strabismus, or misalignment, which prevented me from coordinating the pictures from both eyes into a three-dimensional composite. I quickly found that I could switch pictures at will, though, so I learned to compensate by rapidly switching the two pictures to eliminate illusions of flatness. However, I never used that technique to judge distance. Rather, I would observe the geometry of my two-dimensional image — for instance, how much floor was visible between me and the chair. That doesn’t work well for baseballs and other flying objects. My inability to catch and hit became a tiresome joke.
In the dorm room that night, Ben prayed for my eye, the other guys joining him. I opened my eyes, and I was looking out of both of them at the same time, but seeing one picture.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. “Uh, guys,” I said. “I can see out of both eyes!” They looked up at me, and they could see that my eyes were aligned. I could look into their eyes with both of mine, for the first time. Our prayer session ended with much thanksgiving, and generated quite a bit of excitement in our dorm and across the campus.
The next day when I awoke, I went to the mirror. My eyes were still aligned. I felt a sense of relief that it really was true.
Living with this new visual experience proved to be more difficult than I would have imagined. I was not used to a three-dimensional image, which was far more complex and imprecise (so it seemed to me) than a flat image. Reading was particularly hampered by the noise.
Months later, I began to notice that my eye would drift out of alignment again when I wasn’t thinking about it, and I would go back to seeing out of just one eye. But I could easily bring them back into alignment and stereoscopic vision if I thought about it. I didn’t tell my friends about this. They had been so edified by the event, that I didn’t want to bring them down at all by making it anything less than a complete healing. I realize now that I thereby did them (and me) a disservice.
I’ve found that I’m generally more comfortable seeing out of only one eye at a time. But I can still bring them together, with an effort. I do sometimes, just to remind myself what that’s like.
What actually happened to me on that night? I had never been able to coordinate my eyes before. We prayed about that, and then I could. Those are facts, as far as I’m concerned. But the causes are not so easily nailed down. It could be that my inability to align my eyes before was due simply to my strongly held belief that I couldn’t. Believing in a god who heals provided a “reasonable” (and highly emotional) basis for overcoming that mental hurdle. In the words of Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” That hypothesis aligns (excuse the pun) with my subsequent observations that visual coordination required an effort — an effort I didn’t even notice until the initial excitement wore off.
I’m not dogmatic, though. I’ve been through enough changes to know that how I view things today may seem ridiculously obsolete tomorrow. I don’t completely rule out the idea of a divine agent in this story, although in my current view of things that’s more of a choice of metaphor than a substantive difference.
At the time of this event, I called myself a Charismatic Christian. I believed that the Bible was the Word of God, and I studied it assiduously. I read up to thirty chapters a day in multiple translations. I majored in Biblical Literature, and studied Hebrew and Greek in order to be able to get at what the text “really” said. That’s how I found out several things. There is no “true” text. The Bible is highly fallible. Its writers didn’t think the way we do, and certainly not the way modern Christians do. The Bible is a human document that describes a human journey through an evolving mixture of religious beliefs. If there is truth behind it, it isn’t in the words themselves, despite the Hebrew penchant for confusing the two.
Thus, I now call myself a radical agnostic. Agnostic, to me, is different than Atheist in important ways. I’m not just a non-committal atheist. I don’t say “there is no god.” I think that question probably ends up being about definitions, which are after all metaphors (no matter how technically precise). Rather, I say, “I don’t know.” I prefix “radical” to that, because I don’t view this agnosis as a disability. Rather, I think it’s a key facility for remaining open to whatever knowledge and experience may come my way. It’s also a humble recognition that the three-pound meat computer in my head may not even be capable of the accurate representation of trivial things, let alone questions on the order of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
As we neared each other walking from opposite ends of the bridge, I nodded and said “Good morning,” as I always do. Sometimes people respond in kind, perhaps a little surprised by the social interaction. This elderly, bearded man seemed not to have heard me. We passed within a foot of each other, yet by his behavior you wouldn’t know he had even seen me. He just stared straight through and beyond me with empty, unblinking eyes. As he passed, I noticed the US Air Force Staff Sergeant insignia on the arm of his jacket. I wondered if he had served during the same time as my father, and I wondered what stories lay hidden behind the wall of his eyes.
Parts of this military town are falling apart through neglect, where businesses have closed and none have taken their place, or property owners have allowed their houses and rental properties to age naturally. Others, though, are defiantly well-maintained — new paint or fence, a lawn you could putt on. They’re the retaining wall of their neighborhood.
When I needed a haircut, I decided to try out the barber shop that’s within easy walking distance of my apartment — but only if it wasn’t too pricey. I stepped in the door. The only person there, a small oriental woman, put down her paper and rose from the barber chair to greet me.
“How much for a haircut?” I blurted out rather suddenly. It echoed in the empty room.
“Eleven dollars?” I said.
“You take plastic?”
“Um… do you take debit cards?”
“No. No debit car.”
“OK, I’ll go get some cash and come back.”
As I strolled over to the local grocery store to use the ATM, I reflected that I had been too abrupt and maybe even a bit scary to this small woman all alone in an isolated building. I decided to be more polite on my return. I engaged her in conversation, which she eagerly picked up. I found her English difficult to understand, and she punctuated every other phrase with “know what I mean?” — to which I felt obliged to respond with a “yes,” a nod, or at least an approving grunt. In her pronunciation, “know what I mean?” came out “noah mean?” I couldn’t help but imagine myself responding, “Actually, by all accounts Noah was a pretty nice guy — apart from getting drunk and cursing his grandson.” But I kept those thoughts to myself.
She told me how much she liked the neighborhood and the people in it. They’re private people, she said, but they’re good. She told me that even though she rents the space for her business, she likes to take care of the landscaping herself, to make it look nice. She even takes care of the adjacent property, where a bank closed long ago and nothing replaced it. I had noticed this property before — the bank building is all boarded up, but the grounds are beautiful. The local police found her working on it one day and asked her what she was doing. She explained that she wanted the neighborhood to look nice. Later, she said, the same policeman told her after seeing the result that now he understood her motivation.
I thanked her, gave her a good tip, and told her I’d be back next time.
Despite the housing market, some inexpensive new homes are going up just down the hill. It was in that area that I first saw another of my neighbors. She was yelling at the construction workers. I don’t know what about, but I heard her say, “I just can’t take it!” several times as she walked away from them. The workers mostly ignored her, so I assumed she suffered from some sort of mental illness. Her voice trembled, yet she walked with a strong and steady pace. She headed in my same direction, so I crossed to the other side of the street and stayed well ahead of her.
I’ve crossed paths with her several times since then on my walks, in various parts of the neighborhood. I always nod politely and say “Good morning,” and quickly move along. Once she seemed slightly afraid of me. Another time, confused. Poor woman, I thought.
Today, she stopped and spoke to me. “Did you see the young eagle?”
“No, I didn’t,” I responded, smiling intentionally. “Where is it?”
“It was in that tree over there. It flew off a few days ago,” she said. “We get one every few years. The last one fell from the nest and died, but this one made it and left with its parents. Pardon my voice,” she said, touching her throat. “I have polio. It took away half my voice.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“My husband wishes it had taken the other half, too.”
I laughed out loud.
She continued, “Well, that’s what happens after 57 years of marriage,” and she smiled and left.
“Take care,” I called after her.
True words aren’t spoken
More truth, more contradiction
For truth dislikes words
I’m constantly finding my new neighborhood to be a bit nicer than I had imagined. When I signed the lease, I didn’t even realize that just around the corner I can walk to a little market that has decent prices. I’m living out in the county now instead of on Bainbridge Island, and the prices show it. Most things are about 4% higher than Walmart, which isn’t bad.
My car has been in the shop ever since I moved in, so I’ve been going everywhere on foot or by public transportation. The transfer station is about a mile from my apartment and the busses leave there every hour, so with a little planning I don’t waste too much time. The bus-riding populace has an alarmingly high percentage of missing teeth, but otherwise they’re mostly good and friendly folks. Not friendly on purpose like on Bainbridge, just genuinely friendly when the need to interact arises.
I walk to the market frequently and buy just what I can carry. Early this morning I went to buy coffee and some vegetables. As I was looking over the Romaine lettuce, I suddenly noticed that they had fresh turnip greens! I hadn’t seen fresh turnip greens since I grew them myself abouit 25 years ago in the back yard. Some stores here carry them canned, but the sodium content is too high for my blood pressure.
Turnip greens are my favorite vegetable. I couldn’t stand them when I was a small child, but between the ages of 10 and 13 my tastes shifted dramatically. Perhaps I had finally overdosed on sugar, but I acquired a taste for many foods that I had detested earlier: olives, butterbeans, squash, and turnip greens. I like them with ketchup, but when my grandmother served them with vinegar and onions that wasn’t bad either.
My father told the story of when his father was a young man, back in the early 1930s. Although my grandfather, his father, my father, me, and my first son are all named Sterling Wyatt Camden, we’ve all gone by different names at different times to keep it all straight. My grandfather went by Sterling, and his father was known as Wyatt. Wyatt had bought a WWI surplus Jenny in a crate for Sterling to go barnstorming. On one such journey around the country, Sterling had been repairing his Jenny while standing on some old crates to reach the engine. The crates slipped, Sterling fell, and slit his wrist on the cowling of the Jenny. The wound, not helped by his poor barnstorming diet, nearly bled him to death. But he survived, and made his way back home to recuperate.
On his first evening back at home, Sterling sat at the big diningroom table, while his mother prepared for dinner. She came from the kitchen with a large serving bowl full of turnip greens and set them on the table, then returned to the kitchen to get something else. Sterling had never liked turnip greens, but when she returned they were all gone. Apparently, his body cried out irresistibly for the iron and Vitamin K.
Tonight, I washed the greens and put them in a big pot full of water. I sliced up some bacon and onions and added them to the water. Just as it was beginning to smell wonderful, I remembered: I need ketchup! So, I turned the greens down low and got ready to walk back to the store.
When I opened my front door, I found that the postman had left a package outside. I took it inside and opened it, and what do you suppose it contained? Honey buns! My good friend Justin James had read my earlier post, and shipped them all the way from South Carolina. I sat down and ate one right away. It tasted just as good — maybe better — than when I was a kid. Thanks, Justin!
When I was ten years old, we moved into the house that had belonged to my great-grandparents. My father and his three brothers did most of the work building this house. They left a large part of the basement unfinished, which is where my great-grandfather had his shop and my great-grandmother did her churning.
When we moved in, we were short one bedroom. Dad decided that I should build out my own room out of part of the unfinished basement, under his supervision. We began by putting in joists over blocks on the concrete floor, and then I started nailing the tongue-and-groove pine flooring over the joists. I tried to be careful not to miss the nail and scar the flooring. Nailing at an angle just above the tongue so the nail heads wouldn’t show, I kept on glancing off the nail and sending it flying across the room, or bending the nail after it was half-way in.
Dad tried to give me helpful advice while he sat on the exposed part of the joists and sipped his beer, but occasionally he couldn’t help chuckling at my frustration. I wanted so badly to do a good job on this project, and with each wasted nail or scarred plank, I felt the tears welling up in my eyes.
Finally, I lost my composure. I began blubbering uncontrollably, and at the same time in my anger I grabbed nail after nail and pounded them in as hard and fast as I could go.
They all went in perfectly.
I stopped and caught my breath and wiped my eyes. Dad was laughing so hard he had to hold his sides. “You could always do it,” he said. “You just had to get mad enough!”
I don’t know that the anger was essential, but doing without over-thinking was the key in that case.
I’ve seen that at other times. For instance, when playing pool, it’s easy to over-engineer a difficult shot. Sometimes you just need to shoot, almost without looking.
In programming, too, you can easily think yourself right out of solving the problem at all. Yet, if you take the “cowboy coding” approach all the time, you end up with an unintelligible mess.
When we do well without forethought, we are following the way.
Yet never employing forethought is not following the way.
To say that there is one true way is not the way.
Yet to say there is no true way is also not the way,
Though it may be for a while.
The Spring sunshine drew my eyes away from my monitors for only a moment. Seeing her opportunity, Mother Nature blew me a warm, kissing breeze through the window. I obediently laced on my sneakers and took a walk.
I decided to try a new route, and I discovered to my delight that a bakery outlet store stands less than a mile away from my front door. I’m still discovering this neighborhood. After all, I’ve only lived here a couple of weeks. My family hasn’t moved, but I have. My move wasn’t particularly joyous, but neither was it tragic. My wife helped me to find the apartment and even to move. We’re leaving the future open-ended.
Immediately, I began walking my new neighborhood, the streets of which traverse lots of hills. Once as I reached the crest of a steep one and turned around to catch my breath, I caught my breath again at the view. Though I was miles away, I could see the point of land where we lived years ago, in much happier days. From that elevation and distance, I might have been looking back on my past life from the hereafter.
But today I discovered the bakery outlet. When I was a child, my mother and grandmother often took my sisters and me shopping in Danville, Virginia. Country bumpkins that we were, we children felt that this was a Big City Excursion. We walked in awe down Main Street flanked by department stores with more than one floor. While the womenfolk (that is, everyone but me) tried on clothes, I busied myself in fascination with the escalators or the pneumatic tubes that the clerks used to transfer payments to their back-office. And of course the big treat: we’d eat lunch at Woolworth’s — one of the few restaurants I ever visited at that age.
On the way back home, we’d often stop at the Sunbeam bakery outlet on Piney Forest Road. The adults would stock up on white bread at a discount, but my sisters and I looked forward to a treat that had been held over our heads all day, “If you behave!”: Honey-Buns. It was so hard to remain pleasant all day (especially through the endless fittings), but the Honey-Bun provided a powerful motivation to do so. This wasn’t the Little Debbie pastry in a box that currently blasphemes the name. It was a sticky-sweet monstrosity that was so large it was individually wrapped. We’d each get a whole one if we were good.
I’ve never seen Sunbeam bread in this part of the country. My newfound bakery outlet sells Franz products instead. It sports a long ramp instead of stairs at the front door, just like the bakery outlet of my youth. And as I opened the door, the scent of baked goods seemed to transport me back to that same place.
Serendipitously, I needed a loaf of Rye Bread, which I found along the back wall and carried to the counter. I noticed various persuasions of Danishes in a display cabinet, but nothing that resembled a Honey-Bun. As the portly young woman rang up my purchase, I said, “It’s nice to have this store within walking distance of my new home.”
She smiled and acknowledged my good fortune.
“Say, you wouldn’t have any ‘Honey-Buns’ would you? A large, individually-wrapped pastry that my sisters and I used to devour when we were children, which I can almost taste right now and which would, if I could but have one, seem like a kiss from Providence, a divine reassurance that despite everything that has happened in my life since those early days of innocence and especially recently, there is still love, there is still hope, there is still joy in the world?”
“No, I’m sorry, we don’t.”