My best friend, Winston, almost drowned when we were twelve years old. We had taken my dad’s skiff out on Big Lake in good sailing weather, a stiff northerly breeze whipping up foaming waves. We would have to tack to get away from the dock, so I took the tiller, Winston on the boom. I was the better sailor because I had been sailing all my life whereas Winston had just moved into the house next to ours. A landlubber. He had never been on a boat before that summer but was a fast learner. By fall, he was getting the hang of it.
We tacked into the middle of Big Lake, the sail close hauled, and turned with the wind on our starboard beam. The skiff heeled over, waves pounding the hull. Winston sat on the leeward rail holding onto the shroud, grinning.
The wind was becoming unsteady, making me wish we had put on life vests. I shouted to Winston to get down in the boat. He scoffed and waved his free hand, dismissing my concern. Suddenly, the wind changed direction 180 degrees, the boom swung around, hitting him in the chest. He plummeted backwards into the waves. Not thinking, I leapt from the stern and released the halyard, tossed the anchor over the side.
I was in the water before the buffeting sail had collapsed onto the boom.
Now, at sixty-five, recently retired, Winston is drowning again.
“You just need to focus on whatever you like to do, and do it, but now you can do it right. You have plenty of time. There’s no hurry anymore.”
His sunken eyes, shadowed by bushy eyebrows, rolled slightly in denial. “Those weren’t real interests. Just passing fancies. I don’t really have any hobbies like you, with your travel and reading history books. We can’t all be intellectuals.”
He always said that when we talked about what he was going to do besides cut the grass and visit his children with his wife. The family wasn’t his hobby. He didn’t talk about them all the time, show me pictures, tell stories about the things they did together. I’d had to prompt him to show me a photo of his grandson.
I’m trying to come up with a new idea. I’ve already tried the impulsive approach, but this isn’t like jumping out of a sailboat in Big Lake. This is harder. In the six months since he’d retired, I’d gone down the list of every hobby or interest he’d ever even mentioned but hadn’t gotten a response.
“That’s bullshit and you know it. Most hobbies are about doing things, like woodcarving, sewing, rebuilding an old car, shit like that.”
A brief, pained look flashed across his face. I’d been getting more aggressive in our conversations because I was beginning to not enjoy visiting him. Before his retirement from an electrical engineering company, he’d always talked about electrical circuits, computers, generators, how things worked. It was interesting. He never talked about that anymore. Didn’t want to, except to recall stories of particularly difficult projects, but I’d heard those too many times already. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not ready to sit in a rocking chair. That doesn’t come until you have difficulty walking. I don’t like the idea of visiting my best friend, and just sitting on the porch, rocking back and forth. It was like visiting my grandmother in the nursing home when I was young. He’s waiting for the grim reaper.
“What does Sally like to do?” I ask.
“We have completely different interests. The only things we have in common are the children and this house. And we eat our meals together.”
“What about getting involved with cooking?” I ask desperately.
“I hate cooking. She can do it for all I care because I’m sure as hell not going to. I’d be happy to eat TV dinners and canned food.” He shakes his head and adds, “I worked all my life and now I just want to sit take it easy. I like watching TV. Just drop it.”
I can’t do that. What Winston doesn’t realize is that his actions affect others, like me. We’ve been friends since junior high. We went to college together, were each other’s best man at our weddings, lived less than a half-hour apart for forty years. All that binds us. It’s a two-way street. The idea of drifting apart in our retirement, all because he can’t find something to fill the forty-hour vacuum in the life he’d become accustomed to after so many years, is as traumatic as learning that he has cancer.
I can’t save him this time, but I’ll keep trying.
Chapter 11: Discovering our Physical Nature
I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining how our subconscious and conscious minds (Systems 1 and 2) interact. That’s because of the difficulty of exploring their relationship. I used visual perceptions for this effort and the work continues. It is very slow going; it isn’t easy to develop connections between parts of our brains, but progress thus far suggests that it is possible.
UPDATED RESULTS ON VISUAL QUALIA
First, I’ll give a brief summary of progress in controlling and creating visual qualia. I reported on multi-object visual qualia in Chapter 9, six weeks ago. As of this date, I can report slow progress in controlling and initiating visual qualia. I have learned that there are two preliminary steps: 1) clear my mind of all qualia (thoughts, visual, ear worms, etc.); 2) create a symbolic representation of the object I’m trying to visualize. This is a lot easier than going straight to a pictorial representation.
I sometimes create the blue sphere object, but not often. Usually, it appears as a globe (with the wrong continents) and is usually spinning. I can stop the spin sometimes but can’t hold it in my visual field for long. As far as picturing my face, no luck with a pictorial representation but I’m getting better at symbolic representations. This seems very strange to me. I don’t know what it means not to be able to picture yourself.
PHYSICAL NATURE THEORY
So far, this blog has discussed integrating the conscious (humanity from DDJ) and subconscious (earth) minds through the creation of intentional pictorial representations (visual qualia). Keeping in mind that I’m applying the concepts presented in the Dao De Jing to the three-part entity we call ourselves, we can look at what the DDJ says about the body (Heaven). It isn’t much.
From DDJ 10: In nourishing your physical nature and caring for the One can you integrate [them]? …
This is the starting point, integrating the physical aspects of our person with the ambiguous One. The One indicates Being, existing as opposed no Nonbeing, whatever comes before birth and our lives. In other words, we must take care of our body as well as the mind. The relationship between the body and mind has been discussed by many authors and is a basic tenet of most spiritual systems. That’s not what the DDJ is talking about. The DDJ is referring to something more fundamental.
DDJ 11 presents an interesting metaphor:
Thirty spokes together on one hub, but it is vacancy [in the middle] that makes the cart useful. Firing clay makes a vessel, but hollowness is needed to make it useful. Cut doors and windows in walls to make a room, the empty spaces are needed to make it usable. Therefore, Being serves the purpose of benefits, Non-being serves [as a resource] for use.
Equating Being with the One (from DDJ 10) implies that integrating the body with Being requires nurturing the body in an iterative process.
Recalling that Being creates Yang and Yin (what I’m treating as emergent pseudo-forces); these unknown forces create our bodies and thus minds as we physically develop. Science can’t answer the question of when we become alive, or what causes the metamorphosis from a collection of embryonic cells into an organism. Thus, unlike studying visual qualia in previous chapters, we can’t identify a proxy for this process; however, we can attribute this process to whatever force causes our cells to continuously regenerate. In other words, Yang and Yin are the unidentified mechanism for cell growth and regeneration.
Returning to DDJ 10, the integration of our physical nature with Being is a life-long process that keeps us alive. The ancient sages who compiled the DDJ understood this while not knowing how it works any better than modern science. It is mostly an autonomous process but, like controlling visual qualia, we can influence it through our behavior.
One last word about DDJ 11: These metaphors reveal the importance of the impenetrable Being. It is more fundamental even than Yang and Yin, which can be treated as biochemical processes. Some have called this the “spark of life.” Some call it the “soul.” I’ll just stick to Being. No matter what we call it, this foundation of existence is as empty as a wheel hub, a clay jar, or a room. It is an abstract concept that is critical to making use of physical objects. Thus it serves as a “resource” for our use, even if we can’t identify it.
There are a number of ways to promote the regenerative processes that integrate our physical nature with our Being, our essence. The DDJ doesn’t say much about this, but here’s a starting point:
From DDJ 12: …The five flavors ruin a person’s palate…This is why the [ancient] sages were for the belly, not the eye. They let go of the one and took hold of the other.
The five accepted flavors are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. These are what we can taste. Obviously, we enjoy tasting food, so we pile these on our bland cereals and vegetables. We should be eating for sustenance, not taste. As we eat more sugar, fat, salt, and spices, we lose our sense of taste for food itself. This is an endless cycle if we don’t curtail it. Stop chasing the short-term pleasure of strong flavors. This is reinforced in DDJ 53:
…taste what is without flavor…
Learn to enjoy food for what it is, rather than what has been added.
We can add a complementary act to this: stop eating so much. Food including fat, spices, etc tastes good, so we eat more of it than we need. This problem is compounded by the fact that it takes about 20 minutes before we become aware of our stomach being full.
Overall good health allows the body to function better. It’s that simple. Good health requires moderate exercise, enough sleep, lowered stress, etc. All the things nutritionists encourage us to do.
One final (I’m sure there are plenty more) thing we can do is spend some time during meditation focusing on our body. This is recommended by most meditational techniques. It works.
ACTION AND RESULTS
Turning again to my test subject (me); since I started this blog, I have stopped using any seasoning on my food, even salt. I have also reduced the quantity I eat, measuring the total food with a scale, not individual food groups (e.g., meat, cereal, vegetables). Consequently, I have lost 35 lb. and 3 inches off my waist. I enjoy what used to be bland food: e.g., spinach, rice, beans. I don’t go hungry either. My stomach has become accustomed to not being full after every meal. I still eat meat, mostly salmon and chicken, with a little beef once in a while.
I’ve started doing light weight training and stretching exercises, as well as increased my walking to 1.3 miles every day, which takes about 35 minutes. I walk four times a day because I have to take it easy with the walking due to lifelong issues with my knees; however, the lower weight has decreased the occurrence of discomfort.
I’ve decreased my drinking substantially. Now, I average 8 cans of light beer (~100 cal, 4.2% alcohol) per day, and consume no wine or distilled liquor. I don’t inhale when I smoke, but still…
I’ve got a long way to go, just as in controlling anomalous qualia.
The Original Wisdom of the Dao De Jing, Translated by P.J. Laska, ECCS Books, Green Valley Arizona, 2012.
It was a quiet neighborhood; townhouses filled with college students, young working couples, a few multigenerational families, and Ralph Granby. It wasn’t by design, his being the oldest person in Silverton Plaza. It was a coincidence, or maybe inevitable. His grandson and granddaughter had occupied the two-bedroom townhouse for six years, courtesy of Ralph’s son, John, and his wife, Karen. Ralph moved in when the grandkids graduated, as caretaker. He appreciated having a nice place to live and it was interesting being around college students. At 78, he felt old being around so many kids, but not as old as he’d felt in the retirement community where he’d lived for eight years.
Ralph didn’t smoke in the house, so he spent a lot of time on the patio. He liked being outside and not bothered by other people. He’d never been left alone in Country Life Retirement Center. Some lonely old guy or, worse, a nosy old broad, always wanted to talk about their pains or family. Memories. Ralph didn’t think about the past. He was trying to live in the present.
Ralph had a pretty good idea of what was going on in Silverton Plaza. He’d already met most of the dog walkers. But the three-bedroom townhouse across the retention pond from his patio puzzled him.
Two new SUVs that appeared at the same time caught his attention. He hadn’t seen a moving van or trailer. A woman in her early thirties, another ten years older, appeared with four children, all under ten, and walked their small dog around the pond. They responded curtly when Ralph greeted them. He always said hello. Didn’t want to seem like a curmudgeon. They came and went every day as if taking the children to school, maybe going to work, a Saturday outing with all of them packed into one SUV. They stayed a week. Nothing unusual about their behavior. But Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if they were sleeping on the floor. Maybe the house was a furnished lease.
One morning the two women packed some bundles in the SUVs. No suitcases that Ralph saw, but then he wasn’t watching continuously. This wasn’t a stakeout. He went in to make a cup of coffee. When he returned to the patio, they were gone. They didn’t come back, which seemed strange to Ralph.
Convinced that the transients’ lives were as mundane as anyone else’s, Ralph let his imagination transform the townhouse into a safehouse run by the Federal Marshall Service. In this fantasy, the two women were actually the wife and niece of an accountant testifying against the leader of an international crime syndicate.
A couple days later, a fat guy arrived in a beat-up sedan and unloaded a lot of cleaning supplies, including a vacuum cleaner. He was there all day. Took bags of trash to the dumpster, repacked his car, left. A Federal agent in disguise, doing some cleaning while checking for listening devices, collecting physical evidence.
Ralph invited John and Karen over for lunch on Sundays every few weeks, to demonstrate that he was getting around fine; and he liked talking to them, hearing how things were going now that their children had moved to other cities to begin careers. He knew what an empty nest felt like. He had moved to Tallahassee to be with the only family he had left; returning to the nest as it were. John and Karen always accepted his invitations.
John got another grilled pork chop and some green beans as he said, “What’s up at Silverton Plaza? These college kids driving you crazy yet?” They always joked about Ralph being surrounded by young people, knowing he actually enjoyed it.
“There are more families moving in, young people, some with babies. I think this place is turning into a regular community.”
“No troublemakers, I hope,” Karen interjected. “This place is close enough to the low-income housing that I worry about drug dealers. You haven’t heard any gun shots, have you? Police cars in the middle of the night?”
Ralph shook his head. “No, nothing like that. Just that damned train all day long. You’d think it wouldn’t be so loud a mile away.”
“Does it keep you up?” John asked.
“No. It’s just so loud that I can’t hear myself think. I don’t know how these kids can study with that all the time…but, you know, I noticed something curious last week.” They listened with interest as he told about the two women and children.
“Well, they don’t sound too threatening,” Karen said.
John added, “They must know the owner and were passing through, or maybe waiting for a deal to close. Like you and Mom did when I was in high school. We stayed in a friend’s house for two weeks.”
They agreed that was probably the case. John and Karen cleaned up the table while Ralph went to the patio for a smoke. A red SUV was parked in front of the townhouse. Three black men got out, without luggage, and unlocked the front door. They were all sizes and ages. Ralph assumed they’d gone out for lunch. Must have arrived while he was eating.
John joined him on the patio with a beer, an extra for Ralph.
“Another car just pulled in,” Ralph said, opening the can. He summarized what he’d seen while John studied the brick façade of the townhouse. “You don’t suppose it’s a government safe house, do you?”
“Maybe. But I’d put my money on an Airbnb rental. They’re not only for vacations. The renters must be getting a better deal than a motel.” He shook his head and added, “I don’t see how the owner’s making any money, though. Leasing would bring in a steady stream of income. Maybe they’ll be back from an extended trip and can’t tie it up for six months or more.”
John and Karen took the leftovers with them when they left; that was the deal: Ralph only ate heavy meals in restaurants or with the family. They had expressed concern about how thin he’d become, until he assured them that his physician approved of his weight loss and saw nothing in his blood results indicating any problems. In fact, Ralph was healthier than John, who had high cholesterol.
The three African American men stayed a couple of days, leaving together in the morning, returning in the afternoon. Ralph was convinced that John was right. It was an Airbnb rental. Still, it was possible that they were undercover agents laying low, waiting for their next assignment.
The red SUV left with the three men and was immediately replaced by a white sedan. The next morning, returning to the patio with a cup of coffee, Ralph had a front-row seat of what seemed like a reality TV show. The front door of the three-bedroom unit was open and a young black woman was standing behind the car. She was yelling something, her words drowned by the fountain’s cascade. The car backed up, threatening to run over her. She stepped out of the way, her fist pounding the windows. The distraught woman pulled out her smart phone and took a photo or maybe a video of the departing vehicle.
Her task complete, she reentered the open door, just before the sedan backed up at full speed. Ralph didn’t see what happened next because he went inside to make breakfast. He made a point of not spying on his neighbors.
The white sedan was gone all day. That afternoon, three children appeared on the front balcony, enjoying the view. The oldest kicked the balusters, dislodging one, which fell to the ground. The boy no more than nine or ten, slipped through the gap and climbed around on the outside of the balcony, hanging on the railing. Ralph was concerned because it was more than ten feet to the ground, probably not dangerous enough to intervene. The sedan returned at dusk and a tall, black man got out but didn’t go inside the townhouse. He wandered around by the pond, drinking from an aluminum can, maybe beer, maybe soda, until four children appeared, the youngest barely walking.
Ralph imagined the scenario: the young guy, tired of so many children and not wanting to take responsibility for their care, joined some friends for a few beers, maybe at a bar. His wife hadn’t been happy about that. This guy had to be a small-time drug dealer turned state’s evidence against a drug cartel.
They were gone the next day. The cleaning man who’d taken hours to clean the place before never showed up. Ralph wouldn’t want to rent a house that had been occupied by four children, the youngest in diapers, without being sanitized. Only an undercover operation would be so sloppy. They’d probably lose their permit if it really was an Airbnb rental.
Ralph watched with interest as another white sedan appeared, newer than the previous one. He couldn’t wait to see who it had brought. A young, Asian couple appeared the next evening with a toddler, her hair in two pigtails pointing up. The car remained two days, but the young family didn’t reappear. Ralph didn’t see them leave. This guy wasn’t a criminal. Probably a Chinese dissident from Hong Kong with a price on his head.
The same cleaning guy finally made an appearance, in a different vehicle. The battered, faded, reddish sedan had been replaced by a small SUV. He took a break at lunch time, maybe having a cigarette, and sat in the truck, door open. Ralph couldn’t see inside the vehicle. Pretty sloppy work, forgetting to use the same car. The Feds were asking for trouble.
The next day, a new SUV appeared in front of what Ralph was convinced was an Airbnb rental. The silver Nissan never moved, and no one came out. It sat for three days. They must have a cache of food in the house, he thought. By the third day, his curiosity was getting the best of him. All he’d learned was that the occupants were from Texas. Or at least their vehicle was. His patience was rewarded when his temporary neighbors appeared. A young, black couple in their mid-thirties, accompanied by identical twins, eleven-year-old girls, dressed the same, same hairstyle, same height. And a teenage boy. The children loaded suitcases in the back, the man piled two large bags of trash on the hood. They were a well-oiled machine. They stopped by the dumpster on their way out. This family was too cute to be real. Straight out of a Disney movie. He was either a geek in debt to mobsters, probably gambling losses, or the entire outfit was an undercover family. Maybe used in sting operations.
The cleaning guy didn’t come by…again…before the next visitor arrived.
Ralph was on the patio when a weather-beaten, green minivan pulled into a space in front of the rental. A young, white man got out first and went around the vehicle to open the passenger door. Ralph couldn’t see that side. After a couple of minutes, a young, black woman emerged with a baby and a toddler.
Jesus Christ, Ralph thought. There sure are a lot of children around these days.
The bearded guy followed, burdened by several suitcases. The man and woman seemed nervous. They looked around continuously as she got a key into the lock. His head popped out before the door closed, one last look. Ralph wished he’d seen the arrival of the previous guests.
The newcomers remained inside all day. Jim was on the patio having his last beer of the day when a visitor arrived. It was about time someone had a guest. Just sitting in a rented townhouse for days had to be boring, even with cable television and internet. Two black guys wearing jackets got out of the late-model black SUV, lit by the nearby streetlight, looking around the same way the current occupants had.
Ralph’s phone dinged, informing him of a WhatsApp text. It was a photo of a friend’s new seat covers, for his RV. They were bright red.
Ralph looked up when angry shouts erupted, threatening, indecipherable. One of the visitors threw his weight into the steel-sheathed door, splintering the wood jamb. Alarmed, feeling that this situation was worse than a child climbing on the balcony, Ralph unlocked his phone…
More angry shouts. Fear. Several shots shattered the stillness of the night.
Ralph had dialed 911 before the last echoes died against the brick, stucco, and vinyl of the townhouses.
“Where did she go?” I ask myself, straining to see over the creek bank.
I had fallen behind Cassie in the creek bed, carefully guiding my chestnut mare between boulders in the foot-deep water. Cassie had rushed onward, risking a broken fetlock. She always had to be first.
Finally reaching the steep embankment, I let my steed pick her own path through the scattered rocks and logs covering the slope, green branches and leaves evidence of recent high water. We clear the top, but Cassie isn’t in sight. The trail disappears behind a sharp outcrop of dark stone I had seen from the creek. A waypoint on the map I’d studied.
I give Pioneer a free rein and she takes off like a rocket, slowing only to negotiate the sharp turn, hooves slipping on gravel. No sign of Cassie riding Chester, her surefooted but slow Palomino stallion.
Pine trees hug the trail, their whiplike branches slapping my face painfully; saplings on the stony trace hindering our advance. I duck, bob, weave, but Pioneer remains on course, the small woman on her back forgotten. An outcrop looms ahead, daring us to jump it. Pioneer accepts the earth’s challenge and we take flight, sailing over the obstacle.
A gentle turn marked by more black stone. Pioneer clears the crag at full speed. Cassie mounted on Chester not far ahead. Pioneer wants to catch them more than I do. I lean forward, eyes watching for danger on a trail we’ve never ridden before.
I risk a look into the rocky chasm only a few feet from Pioneer’s hooves. From my vantage point atop Pioneer, I see the trickle of a stream at the bottom. My gaze returns to Cassie, fifty yards ahead, glancing over her shoulder. Another rocky promontory. Cassie and Chester disappear behind it.
Pioneer puts on the brakes, pressing my boots into the stirrups. I’m confused as she warily rounds the jutting rock, as if expecting trouble. Chester is waiting expectantly. He neighs nervously, standing in front of a jumble of irregular black rock and soil, reins hanging from his bit.
Why American Democracy is Safe
With all the arguing, political infighting, misinformation, texting, posting, name calling, screaming, protesting, not counting the side effects of Covid-19, we are revealing the strengths of our democracy. Those other people are stupid, blind, unable to see the facts, living in fantasyland, corrupt, superstitious, crazy, lazy, useless plagues on society. I agree.
This is how people with different biases, superstitious beliefs, post-apocalyptic fears, social demands, xenophobias, delusions of grandeur, and idyllic dreams get along. We don’t get along. That’s the history of our species, and every other species on earth.
We live in a nation founded on slavery, where only white men who owned land could vote. The wealthy men who wrote the Constitution didn’t even think of personal rights. They were an afterthought, and they wrote the Bill of Rights vague enough to assure their continued supremacy. But they weren’t the only selfish, egoistic, biased people in America. The lowest farmer, supported by local militia and governments, swindled the native Americans, murdered them, stole their land, ran them off at gun point. America is founded on greed. Nothing new there in the annals of history.
Fighting is easy. Thinking is hard. That was true when the disgruntled colonists started the Revolutionary War, rather than patiently waiting for their opportunity to separate from England. That was true when the North and South fought the Civil War rather than patiently working out a long-term solution. It was still true when America declared war on Spain, envious of European empires, impatient for some action. It remains true to this day, with U.S. forces still on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, having gained very little. It will always be true.
America is a polyglot society, so of course we are split. We’ve had a civil war, the Jim Crow era in the south, rampant capitalism, rampant economic and social inequality, rampant environmentalism, rampant political correctness, rampant racism and antiracism, you name it. It’s always been out of control in a society like America.
The United States is a carbon copy of Europe, but with a shorter record of war and rampage. Maybe we learned, maybe it was an accident that we’ve only fought one civil war. America is coming of age. With a population equal to that of Europe, we are facing crises of every sort, just as the nations of Europe did over the centuries. Instead of taking up arms to settle our disputes, starting two global conflagrations, we are fighting on social media and in the courts.
No matter what the outcome of the election, no matter how ambiguous the result, no matter how long it takes to determine America’s next President (not King), there is no revolution brewing. Of course there is the anarchist fringe that likes to play with guns. Those people never started a revolution in the history of the world. Lenin wasn’t an anarchist, but an intellectual elitist with a devoted cadre of followers.
We act like we live in a banana republic at times, but that is only the result of minds with too little to do, and too much entertainment. We have too many pundits, too many religions, too many investigative journalists, too many think tanks, too many whistle blowers, too many guns, too many leaks, too much security, too much food, too much freedom for government to hide its mistakes in the guise of national security. Too much bullshit.
While drowning in verbal and digital sewage, we can hold our heads up and declare that no one has found a better way to form so many people, from so many cultural and ethnic origins, into a working democracy.
America isn’t heaven, but more like purgatory, not because of our Constitution, not because of conservatives, not because of liberals, not because of people of color, not because of immigrants, not because of lazy people, not even because of assholes. It seems like hell sometimes because of our diversity, too many idiots and lunatics, people who don’t think the same we do.
We should all remember that it could be bad. We could be living in China, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela; all countries with relatively homogeneous populations. Look how they turned out.
The author, Joel Garreau, proposed that America is splintering in his 1981 book, The Nine Nations of North America. It was an interesting analysis, but he was wrong. There are fifty nations in America, each state jealously guarding its sovereignty agains the other states and the Federal Government. We have a revolution every two years, as declared in the Constitution, when we vote.
So rant away if it makes you feel better, but don’t forget to vote.
Goodbye to Walden Pond
I never read Walden. I probably never will because, from what I’ve heard, Thoreau didn’t write about real life, the struggle to survive against other creatures; hungry, cruel, desperate beings. Like us. Still, there is something to be learned from words, even when they reflect the author’s imagination rather than reality.
My wife wanted a townhouse, something on the university bus route near campus; a place where the kids could live while attending Louisiana State University. An investment. We looked at some run-down units and weren’t impressed. College housing was scarce in Baton Rouge back then, just five years ago, so we settled on a three-bedroom unit in a gated community. It needed some repairs. I was elected to move in six-months before the fall semester. There went my spring plans for traveling the country in my motorhome.
Our new townhouse’s patio faced the retention pond, the size of an Olympic pool, surrounded by a steep bank covered by weedy grass. A culvert connected the shallow reservoir to a labyrinth of ditches, canals, sloughs, creeks, bayous, lakes, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. A fountain accented the pond, running twenty-four hours a day. The fountain burbled when I went to bed, its steady cascade lulling me to sleep. It became the central point of my existence, the fountain of life, youth, dreams, disappointments, a microcosm of life. My world was centered on the unceasing flow of recirculated water. I shared this fascination, this dependence on its life-renewing sustenance, with other living beings, and that’s what this story is about.
Of course, I watched from my patio, safely behind the fake wrought iron fence separating me from the pond. Prison bars to me. Zoo bars to the young neighbors walking their dogs past me as if on parade. The old guy.
The turtles living in my Walden Pond were the first to catch my eye. Their heads protruded from the water like the periscopes of submerged submarines, ready to strike. They clawed their way out of the primordial waters to sunbathe for hours. In the warm spring sun, they copulated, and reproduced. Despite the indifferent mothers’ negligence, haphazardly dropping their gestating young among the pine mulch beneath the sparse, small trees, baby turtles appeared. No bigger than my palm, their offspring struggled against gravity to join their parents in the sun.
One morning, sunrise only a distant hope, I noticed something glistening on the grass, dimly lit by a streetlight. At first, I thought it was trash discarded by my adolescent neighbors. I investigated more closely, abandoning the safety of my patio to venture into the wilderness, following the path I’d memorized between the piles of dog feces left by young, unsocialized neighbors.
All kinds of fish—trout, catfish, bass, crappie, croaker—come to visit the pond, perhaps even copulate in the murky water, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves, and to die. A large one, perhaps nine inches long, had lunged for an insect near the bank, a feeding behavior they exhibited in the morning and evening, often landing several feet from the water’s edge, flopping around until gravity pulled them back to the dark water. Again and again. Having accomplished this feat, the unfortunate gymnast and been caught in the jaws of a waiting snake. I watched in fascination from fifty feet away, standing in the parking lot where I could see clearly, as the snake struggled to keep from sliding into the water on the steep embankment. The fish was suffocating but desperately fighting, its silvery body writhing spasmodically, far too large for the jaw whose fangs had snagged it. The two of them fought for several minutes, the assassin undulating, seeking a firm hold on the damp grass. No ground was gained or lost when the snake, realizing the futility of its effort, released its victim and withdrew into the shadows. Its prey lay dead two feet from the water’s edge.
Back in my refuge on the patio, I watched in horror as one of the denizens of the deep climbed slowly out of the dark water and pulled the assassin’s victim into the stillness of the pond. The largest of the turtles, watching the battle from the water’s safety, had come to claim the reward for its patience.
I finally escaped, taking my motorhome for a cross-country trip. Alas, my freedom was not to be long-lived. Dental implant surgery tied me to the fountain and the pond as surely as a chain. There was more for me to witness, to endure, to wish I had never seen.
When it rains in southern Louisiana, it rains, a lot. The pond fills up and is replenished with life. Immigrants arrive, eager for a bounty of food in the paradise they have stumbled across, lost. When the bayous, canals, and culverts dry up, the fish can’t return to their home waters. They are left confused and hungry, finding the pond to have no sustenance, they are easy prey for adolescent humans. Fishing is a popular form of torture, not that different from the snake’s method. Barbed hooks of steel sink into the soft flesh of hungry fish, snaring them like the fangs of a garden snake. Catch and release is the anthem of these would-be anglers because torture is more enjoyable when inflicted slowly. Keep the victim alive.
One hot summer, I watched the same hungry fish caught repeatedly by several fishermen; I couldn’t hold my tongue, when a young boy caught the fish who had been tortured at least a dozen times before, by college students with expensive fishing gear. I told the boy that the fish were like pets. He looked at me skeptically, retreated with his pole and hook, and returned fifteen minutes later. He ignored me, and I ignored him.
He had been told the truth by his parents: “It’s a stupid fish and you can do anything you want to it.” At least that’s what I think he was told…maybe his loving father added, “Fuck that old man It ain’t his fuck’n pond.”
Every pond in southern Louisiana is visited by migrating birds, perhaps drawn by ubiquitous fountains shimmering in the sun. They stopped by for a quick snack, sometimes a filling meal, feeding on the smaller fish relaxing naively in the shallows. First came a young egret, delighted to have a private fishing preserve. The young bird feasted, only being harassed occasionally by an older competitor, but the youngling was persistent. Every day, morning and evening, it would drop by to enjoy the fountain with me; until a blue heron, with long legs, a sharp beak, and a bad attitude challenged it for use of the pond.
The newcomer wasn’t going to share its bounty with anyone, so it threatened the smaller egret until it left. My new companion was an experienced angler and soon depleted the pond of small fish, moving on to a new feeding ground. Another world to conquer.
High overhead, flights of geese and ducks flew in formation, not stopping at the pond, heading for the open wetlands a few miles from our house. The pond wasn’t worth the effort of landing and retaking flight. No energy to waste on exploration. In the spring and summer, squadrons of young hawks circled, learning how to kill from the air. The mockingbirds stopped singing and playing during these displays of aerial prowess.
Migrant bluebirds, cardinals, and other colorful species visited me now and then. They never stayed, not being interested in the pond. Too flighty to be drawn by the allure of something so permanent, so eternal as the fountain.
Clumps of water grass appeared in the same spots every summer, as if following a design dictated by nature. Four floating islands, barely anchored to the soft bottom, spread until the landscape maintenance crew removed them at the end of summer. The fish loved the grass for the insects it attracted. They leapt through it in a feeding frenzy. I imagine the mosquitos loved it too, for shielding their larvae from the incessant pounding of the fountain. One of the patches would drift around like a barge broken loose from its mooring, gently joining the others, circumnavigating the pond as the wind changed direction, always pressed to the edge by the fountain’s force.
No story of life on a pond would be complete without mentioning the year-round inhabitants hiding in the grass and trees. There are no real trees; only large shrubs trimmed to look like trees. Too open for nesting, the mockingbirds and sparrows chose the thick foliage of the bushes scattered around the neighborhood. But they came to play, flirt, dance, and copulate in front of my patio, perhaps because of the small trees that dumped flowers, berries, leaves, and pollen on my patio and in my face. Maybe they were showing off.
Where there are flowers, there are hummingbirds and bees. One warm spring day, I was having lunch when something hit my arm hard enough to spill food from my utensil. A strangely shaped, very-large bug was lying on the patio next to met, out of focus. It buzzed, shook itself, and flew to my prison bars, shaking rhythmically. Curious, I donned my reading glasses and took a closer look. The apparition was actually two large bees copulating. I didn’t know bees did it like that. They did it for a while, so I lost interest, my curiosity satisfied.
I must mention my closest companions on Walden pond. Small lizards, adults less than six inches long, are always with me during the warm months. I learned a lot about them, like that the males are bright green and expand white air sacks under their throats as sexual and threatening displays. The females are dark green but the same size. I know which is which because they like to have sex right in front of me, on my prison bars, but they don’t copulate in the rapid manner of the bees. They don’t seem to copulate at all but remain frozen in a close embrace for a long time. I don’t know how long because I get bored. The young lizards join me at the table, climbing, hunting for spiders, sometimes getting on me by mistake. They’re cute.
One spring day, after a heavy rain, the water level in the web of waterways honeycombing southern Louisiana rose higher than usual, allowing a monster to enter the pond, the water’s rippled surface disturbed by its progress. A stubby nose at its prow, two beady eyes following, the mass of its body submerged, the otter fed on the newly arrived fish. It cavorted, diving and whirling, its submerged movement marked by air bubbles breaking the water surface. Within five minutes, occasionally coming up for air, it left as silently as it had arrived. Sated no doubt on any fish it had found in the murky depths.
I’ll never forget the year of extreme weather, which I won’t blame on global warming because that winter was cold as hell. The summer was marked by a biblical deluge, not a tropical storm or hurricane, that flooded Baton Rouge but left my patio high and dry. The pond swelled to the top of the embankment, five feet above normal water level, but the fountain never stopped cascading. Indomitable. Eternal.
Winter brought snow, a rarity in southern Louisiana. The first snowfall was two inches, the world bright white, reminding me of why I didn’t live in northern latitudes. The beauty didn’t last because my young neighbors appeared to construct snowmen. All they accomplished was destroying the luster, creating an urban landscape of tracks and mounds of snow. Bare, dormant, grass and dirt. The second snowfall was less, not worth the effort of ruining. After the shock of snow, another surprise arrived; a cold front brought arctic air to the Gulf Coast, and the surface of the pond froze. The fountain never stopped flowing, however, the only open water near its base. I worried about the turtles.
When I returned for the last time, the world had changed ominously. The fountain no longer ran all day and all night; someone had installed a timer, so it shut down at ten p.m. and turned on at seven a.m., destroying the eternal harmony of the pond, upsetting the balance of nature.
The silence in the morning was golden, except for the wail of a train horn in the distance and the noisy air conditioners turning on constantly. Having discovered quiet, I began to hate the fountain that had centered my life. I fled upstairs to escape its roar. There was no respite, so I started getting up earlier and earlier; a couple of hours of silence.
The turtles must have felt the same. Like me, they had grown accustomed to a few hours of silence and the return of the cascading water in the morning was no longer acceptable. They were also unhappy with other changes that had occurred because of the eternal fountain. The unceasing ripples had worked on the soft bank too long and the land capitulated, accepting defeat, and eroded. Now, instead of a gentle slope surrounding the water, they faced a scarp more than six inches in height before they could reach the warmth of the sun. Their world in turmoil, the denizens of the deep began migrating, not through the culvert that led indirectly to the ocean, but instead over land, across the cement parking lot. Their destination was the drainage ditch at the edge of the subdivision. I think the emigres made it because I didn’t see any squashed turtle shells. A few remained to wait for another dead fish to scavenge.
There is a peculiar kind of duck that is common along the Gulf coast: individuals who don’t want to fly north for the summer make their permanent home in ditches that are seldom dry. Dogs and cats don’t bother them, they reproduce and multiply, get fat on the bounty supplied by a warm climate and lots of rain.
Late this last summer, one of these ditch ducks was sitting on the grass next to the pond when I went to the patio to begin my morning ritual of drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and wondering when I would escape the fountain. To see a ditch duck in the pond was a rather surprising thing because they grow very fat and don’t fly, choosing to waddle everywhere. I don’t think it walked past the front gate or got through the fence enclosing the neighborhood. It remained three days, shuffling around, occasionally fleeing to the safety of the pond to escape a curious dog, flapping its wings futilely, fishing. It seemed to be on vacation.
The third morning after its arrival, the visitor shuffled to the parking lot, began flapping its wings furiously, stumbling forward, leaping in small bounds, and finally got off the ground. I watched in wonder as the strong wings fought to lift the corpulent body into the air. I grimaced in sympathy, directing my willpower to assist. It had less than six feet of altitude when it disappeared behind the building. It must have made it because I haven’t seen it since.
The egret and the blue heron had worked out an arrangement to share the meager provender of the pond. The egret dropped by during the day whereas the larger, bad-tempered waterfowl took the morning and evening shifts.
With the fountain silenced in the morning, the heron began perching on it, maybe to sleep. I don’t know because the gushing water didn’t cease until after I went to bed. Perhaps the bird waited in the shadows for the fountain to rest. At any rate, the silent predator was always present when I went outside at five a.m. A ghost.
In the dark, it searched the murky water, dove in sometimes, fishing from its pedestal. I wondered if it could tell time because it always disappeared before seven a.m., when the fountain roared into life.
This morning, there it was as usual, getting its breakfast, watching for danger. After dumping a stream of green goo on the grass, it retook its perch on the fountain. I checked the time on my phone: six-fifty-one. Six-fifty-two…
I waited. The fountain waited. The bird didn’t budge.
The fountain waited silently, preparing to spring its trap on the unsuspecting interloper, who had no business standing on it, taking advantage of its vulnerability.
I laughed along with the fountain when it burst into life, tossing the startled bird in the air.
The kids graduated college and, like the migrating birds, set off to begin new lives. I’ll be leaving soon as well, joining my wife on the other side of the world, my departure delayed by more home repairs.
I won’t miss the fountain, but I’ll always remember the time we spent together. It seemed like an eternity. I guess that every moment is a small piece of eternity, however, so let’s just say I spent an eternity with that fountain on my Walden pond.
I’ll let Henry David Thoreau finish the story:
“I learned this, at least…that if one…endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will…pass an invisible boundary…live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex…If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost…Now put the foundations under them.” (Walden, 323- 324)
Review of “Corazon tan blanco,” by Javier Marias
I found a web page that recommended several Spanish-language books for intermediate readers, so I ordered a couple. This is the first book from the list. If this is for intermediate readers, I can’t imagine what is suggested for advanced readers. It is written in some kind of avant garde style that no student should be exposed to.
The first chapter is one paragraph that goes on for five pages. Sentences run up to half-a-page. It is a stream-of-consciousness journey with the first-person narrator, who questions every single thing that happens to him. He gives some family history in his rambling thoughts. Flashbacks appear without warning in the middle of sentences. His life slowly unfolds in this piecemeal and unstructured manner.
I can summarize the plot easily, because nothing happens. He gets married, goes on a honeymoon, moves into a new apartment, visits a friend in New York (he lives in Spain, but I don’t remember which city), returns home and learns a terrible secret about his father. All the action is in his mind, his doubts and worries consuming his every waking moment.
The devil is in the details, and so is the interesting parts of this book. The author does a good job taking the reader into every mundane corner of the protagonist’s mind, unearthing questions we ask ourselves every day without thinking. All of it is captured for examination in remarkably well constructed flights of imagination. The self-deprecating humor is perfectly done, especially the way the narrator’s occupation as a translator is analyzed. I laughed several times at the depictions of the world of international diplomacy. Very good. The same sharp wit is turned on politics and everyday activities.
This would be difficult to translate to English, so much would be lost, but if it’s available, I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a simple but complex story about a man stumbling through life as a successful professional.
I also recommend it to someone who reads Spanish, but not to a “intermediate” reader like me.