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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Thoughts on Escape


In December I was on a headlong, high-speed, emotional retreat from the world. I read three Lee Child “Jack Reacher” novels practically in a nonstop row, beginning the second immediately upon finishing the first and then, after a short interval with other material, returning for a third. But running (away) that fast can be exhausting, and it doesn’t really work, anyway. Never mind. It was a phase it seems I just had to go through.

Depression, Nightmares, Insomnia, and Facts

The very phrases ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ are depressing, not to mention the way nightmares involving the U.S. Congress have invaded and interrupted my sleep. Me, not the world’s most politically engaged person for most of my life!

As for truth and facts, though, I’ve long realized (I remember a few insights when I was a young child) that we all have different perspectives on the world around us. It’s winter now, so take the fact of snow:

To a puppy, blowing snow might be frightening or wildly exciting. A human toddler might greet snow as does the braver puppy, but if snow keeps blowing in the baby’s face, he’ll probably start to cry. Athletic types cheer up at the prospect of good skiing, while old people worry about slippery sidewalks and roads. Even the plow driver and UPS driver don’t have identical perspectives on snowy weather. But no one denies the fact. No one says, “That isn’t snow, it’s confetti! It’s little bits of paper people threw to celebrate my victory! Whaddya mean, dangerous? Nah! Don' worry about it!"

No, we recognize snow, and we understand that we have to deal with it for what it is, like it or not.

Anyway, I am hardly alone in depression and insomnia. Numerous friends share the same experiences, and we try to buck up for one another’s sakes.

Day of Ups and Downs

On Thursday I walked out of the house to drifted snow and an unplowed shared drive. Don’t ask. As crises go, this one was not so much as a blip on the radar. Merely a challenge. The low right front tire was another, more serious matter.

Rocking the truck back and forth and shouting curses (new studies show cursing can help), I finally broke free and slithered and slewed up the hill. I would air the tire up in town before starting back home in the afternoon. Maybe it would be warmer then.

First village stop was at the corner store for gas and a newspaper. The very young) woman at the cash register noticed a Tiffany's ad on the front page and expressed skepticism that anyone would ever be offering her a ring from Tiffany's. When I said I'd never wanted diamonds, she admitted she'd be just fine if some guy offered her a HORSE as an engagement token! I'd been pretty low-key up until then but shouted, "Yes! Me, too!" To which she said, "Or even a goat. I'd take a goat," to which I said, "Not me, but I'd take a cow," and she agreed she'd take a cow, too, but we agreed that a horse would be best. I left with a big smile on my face! What a wonderful interlude on an otherwise cold, bleak day! I loved it!

Six people came in during the day to sign my letter to our new U.S. Representative, and that was gratifying. No one came to look at books, which was discouraging, and my UPS delivery came too late in the day to get word to people to pick up their orders. Oh, and then there was the call to AT&T about my phone bill, up in two years from under $70 to over $100 with no new services added, which made me think again of the price of facial tissue and paper towels, up an even greater percentage, and the cost of having my teeth cleaned, which went from $95 in the spring to $160 this winter....

But the real challenge of the end of my business day was the low tire. Twenty pounds, my gauge said when I went to the air hose, checking the pressure first. Next I put two quarters in, cursing the cold, but couldn't get the hose to work. Tried another two quarters. Fingers freezing! Finally gave up and drove north of town to the garage, where I threw myself on their mercy! Told Mark's wife I was desperately in need of help! Told her my pathetic story. She said someone else had had the same problem and that they had concluded the hose
must be frozen. "You mean it isn't just me?" She smiled and shook her head. Thank god! I was feeling so incompetent! She had me pull around to one of the bays, and Mark came out and checked all four tires and brought them up to 35 pounds. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Before that I'd been so frustrated and felt so stupid I wanted to cry!

Turning to Fiction

After dinner and a movie, I picked up The Assault, by Harry Mulisch. I figured it was time for another novel after so much nonfiction, but this novel offered no escape, other than from the specifics of 2017, because the same questions recur in the troubled history of human civilization:

What apparently insignificant remark or desire sets chains and webs of events in motion? Why, when every single one of us has such a short tenure on this earth, do we muck it up so badly for ourselves and each other? How can mankind be so cruel? And how can one oppose inhumanity without taking on some of its traits?

Does anyone have ‘clean hands’? Is it possible to remember? Is it possible to forget? If we cannot forget, and if we remember only dimly and confusedly, can we forgive and move on? How?

The central character in The Assault is a boy in the first section of the book. The year is 1945. A cruel Fascist policeman is assassinated on the street by anti-Fascists, and neighbors drag the body from in front of their house to in front of Anton’s family home. German occupiers soon arrive and, in retaliation for the killing, set Anton’s house on fire. After a confusing and frightening series of events, in which the boy is taken into custody by authorities who have no idea what to do with him, he is given over to his uncle and aunt. 

Subsequent events take place in 1952, 1956, 1966, and 1981, and gradually the truth of what happened in 1945 comes to light for Anton, piece by piece, and each time Anton has to recalibrate his memory.

Big issues and stunning writing.
And there were not only negative reasons for his choice of anesthesiology. He was fascinated by the delicate equilibrium that must be maintained whenever the butchers planted their knives in someone—this balancing on the edge between life and death, and his responsibility for the poor human being, helpless in unconsciousness. He had, besides, the more or less mystical notion that the narcotics did not make the patient insensitive to pain so much as unable to express that pain, and that although drugs erased the memory of pain, the patient was nevertheless changed by it. When patients woke up, it always seemed evident that they had been suffering. But when he spoke of this theory once to his colleagues, who were talking about yachting, the way they looked at him suggested that he had better keep his thoughts to himself if he wanted to remain in the club.

Final Thought to Ponder

If, under anesthetic, our bodies feel pain – and if bodies continue to feel after-effects, although we have no conscious memory of surgery’s pain – and if learning can take place during sleep – and if, as countless studies have shown, much more takes place in our brains than ever reaches the level of consciousness – why would we ever think we could escape the real world, deny it though we will?

You may be wondering -- was I sorry to have chosen such a serious, non-escapist novel to read? Not at all. It was worth the time spent and left me calm and thoughtful.

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