The Curmudgeon Has a Revelation

A couple of weeks ago, I was sent to Physical Therapy by my orthopedist. My right shoulder has been aging at a faster rate than the rest of me, and its resulting asymmetrical relationship to the rest of my body had caused some (pretty serious) pain. Trip to the ER, X-rays, some damn fine pain meds, the usual drill.

First visit to the Physical Therapist… nothing particularly notable other than that the assistants are universally young, fit, and sunny. They must be given smile pills before starting work, because they are all. just. so. happy.

I’m not. My shoulder hurts. I haven’t had my coffee yet.

After an initial consult, during which my upper body is twisted and contorted into positions worthy of a fakir on his bed of nails, I’m ultrasounded and released into the “therapy room”. More bright sunny assistants, all too willing to help with proper posture and positioning while I go through my assigned exercises.

And I go through my reps and series, and hang from a beam in the ceiling, and pull my arms behind my back and lift, all the while pressing my “scaps” together, while my “traps” and “delts” and “lats” all do whatever it is they’re supposed to. It’s interesting to have come this far in life and not be aware of these essential bits of equipment.

I get my rhythm together. It almost feels good to go through the routine, even though it feels unnatural in the extreme. And when I relax, I look around to the various other stations in the therapy room. Each one has an inhabitant: someone, who like me, has pulled or twisted some esoteric part of their anatomy out of alignment, and now must go through a few hours of sunny dispositions every week while the misalignment is aligned.

Oddly, I notice that everyone at the other stations is aging; they’re well past middle age, and into “senior citizenship” if my eye doesn’t deceive. Characteristic liver spots, thinning hair, and a common slight stoop in posture that hints ever so subtly at the later effects of age. “Wow”, I say to myself. “There’s some pretty old folks working out in this room…”

And, inevitably, in the course of my visual meanderings around the room, I see a familiar figure across from me. “Wow”, I say to myself. “Who’s that older guy who looks sort of familiar?”. I recognize the baggy shorts, the worn-out Grateful Dead T-shirt stretched over the growing paunch, the graying hair and the slight stoop in posture heralding the wonders to come. There’s even a hint of the “Olive-on-toothpicks” look that many older men achieve as their leg muscles atrophy, and their guts continue to expand,

You know what the revelation was. You know that the figure across the room was necessarily my own reflection in a mirror, not immediately recognized as I had taken off my glasses. And as I saw that man across the room, and looked at the others grunting and straining through their own assigned Range-of-motion therapies, I realized with some wistfulness that it was not a matter of me and them…

They and I have become “us”, all sitting together in the lifeboat as it slowly fills with frigid seawater.


Reflections on the Previous Reflection

As I was publishing the last blog entry, I happened to look up from my monitor. Over the top of it, I watched two seals swimming and diving in a diagonal line about fifty feet away from my window. Behind them, like a fleet of diminutive destroyer escorts, paddled a string of seagulls.

The seals were obviously chasing a school of fish, some of which occasionally broke the surface in their dance away from the hungry seals. The gulls, winged rats that they are, were simply following the debris trail left behind by the feeding seals, like feathered remoras.

I do live in a beautiful place!


I seem to know many wonderful women who are not “relationship material”, either by their own admission, or by my own “filter” process. This does not, in any way, disqualify them as profoundly beloved friends. I love their company, and their otherness. They exude a sensibility (and sensitivity) that I can only fleetingly understand. I am charmed by their small gestures, by the toss of hair, or the putting on of lipstick, or the odd fact that dressing, which for me is a matter of 10 minutes, can be an hour-long ultimately unsatisfactory exercise for them.

I am sometimes overwhelmed by their unconditional affection, by their caring deeply if some contretemps builds a speed bump across my personal highway. I love their laughter, and their intellect, and their calling me on my bullshit when it is bullshit – which, of course, is not often!

I love spending time with them, but can no more envision taking the friendship over the “intimacy” threshold than I can imagine myself growing antlers and becoming a moose.

This leads to an inevitable result: I live alone. I live a solitary, introspective life – not an unpleasant one, mind, but definitely solitary and even, at times, reclusive.

It is a rich life, full of beauty, books, music and art, and words. I live in a breathtakingly beautiful place from which I can watch seabirds and harbor seals, and the endless play of light on the water. I see mountains, and fog. I have a Siamese cat. I meditate. I sing in the shower. My politics lean the right way, which is left. I think about things like semiotics and Shakespeare and the “observing ego”. I read poetry in French. All would seem well.

And there’s the rub. There are times when this resplendent solitude and its attendant silence is overwhelming; times when I feel a palpable yearning for a gentle touch on the cheek, or a kiss that speaks something more than “goodnight, I had a wonderful time. Let’s do this again soon”.

This is when I realize the intellectual distractions are just that: distractions. They keep my mind occupied, and my eyes averted from the fact that what I do, I do alone. I wonder if I’m lonely.

Not long ago, I was watching a movie on TV in my living room with friends. One woman was sitting beside me. She was tired, and the film wasn’t engrossing. She fell asleep, due to the peculiar geometry of the sofa, with her head on my chest. It seemed that time stopped. That simple gesture, full of trust and vulnerability spoke volumes to me about what is not in my world. After a few minutes, she awoke, and pulled away, embarrassed. I wanted to reach out to say, “no, no, it’s OK. Lay your head back down and let me hear you breathe”. Naturally, I did not.

I wonder if, before too many more years have passed, I’ll become bitter and disappointed. Will that bitterness turn inward? Will a preference for solitude become a fixation on keeping my space inviolate, and will my inner old-guy-turned-curmudgeon finally take his place?

Another woman who happens to be the wife of another friend, and therefore not “relationship material” is very kind to me, and is affectionate toward me strictly within the boundaries allowed. She shocked me a few weeks ago by saying, in an abundance of honesty, that she simply assumed I would spend the rest of my life alone. I asked her why. She replied that she has always seen me as a seeker, who never finds.

Is that praise, or a condemnation?

Fogbound on the Golden Gate Bridge

Those who stand on the Bridge, while indecision nibbles at their souls
Invariably stand such that they face the city and its foggy light,
While they think they think the matter through.

Don’t they know, those who stand and think and cry,
That they should have their ears blocked with beeswax?

Or if not, should be tied to the mast with ropes that must be cut to loose them
while the siren-song of fog-bound light creeps up on wisps of mists, faint rhythms of the waves below?

They hear the song. When it comes so loud, up from the water,
The thinkers tear their clothes, and sob, and look out at those lights, uncaring as the rocks below.
They think it best to believe the song rings true.

When the moment of decision, indecision grabs their hands to pull them down, why do they face the light that hurt them?
Why not the dark, the ocean?
As they scream through their descent, do they realize the rocks are empty and the sirens gone?

Digging Graves in Wales

“I am broken,” said the shovel, “and my handle lies in pieces on the ground”.

The gravedigger looked down at the broken shovel, and shook his head. It was indeed broken, and he had no spare. He could dig no more graves until the supply boat arrived from Kinsley, and that would be at least a week hence.

“Shovel,” said the gravedigger, “you’re right. You’re broken and I cannot dig another grave. I must run to tell the vicar”.

And with that, the gravedigger, muddy boots and all, ran down the gravel path to the vestry where he knew he would find the vicar preparing for evening services.

Without even pausing to knock, he flung the door to the vestry open, and shouted to the vicar who had barely managed to finish buttoning his cassock, “Vicar, my shovel’s broken. I can’t dig another grave. We must tell people in the village to stop dying!”

The vicar summoned all his half-vested dignity and said, “a broken shovel will make no difference. Our village will keep dying, and I will continue to celebrate the office for the burial of the dead, even if you give me no graves in which to commit them.”

The gravedigger, deflated, looked at the vicar and sighed with the resignation of one who knows he has made a dreadful mistake. He walked back up the hill along the gravel path to the ancient graveyard, where his broken shovel lay on the ground, feeling rather pleased with itself.

“Don’t be getting too comfortable, old friend,” said the gravedigger to the shovel. “The vicar seems to have other plans for us.”

He picked up the shovel, and carried it back down the path, past the church, past the vestry door, where the vicar stood watching him impassively.

He continued down the path, until he came to the cliff-edge overlooking the breaking waves of the Irish Sea. Behind him, the Holy Island held its breath. The gravedigger drew back his arm, and with the considerable strength he had developed over years of digging graves, threw the shovel as far as he could out into the middle of the bay, where it hit the water with a splash scarcely heard above the wind and the sea-birds’ cries.

Fortunately, no one died in the village for the next two weeks. The supply ship from Kinsley arrived on schedule, carrying not one, but two new shovels for the gravedigger.

The very next day, Mrs Kittredge passed away from pneumonia, and was buried, quietly, in the presence of her family, in the churchyard, where the vicar presided over the ceremonies, and the gravedigger, once everyone had left the yard, filled in the grave and tamped down the loose dirt with the back of one of his new shovels.

Disturbing Scene in a One-bedroom Apartment

It was impeccably well-organized, with some exceptions: there was, for example, no plaintive note, no “poor me” epistle that summed things up in an arithmetically imperfect stew of “I wish” and “They did”.

The rope, as it turned out, was of Japanese silk, of a rich purple, finely flexible so that it barely abraded the skin, and perhaps, at the end, might have almost seemed a caress.

Out of consideration to those who might come after, a waterproof tarpaulin was spread on the floor, beneath the feet of the rustic  chair from Nova Scotia (the one that had been oddly repaired at some past point by replacing a broken stile with a shovel handle, hand tapered, and delicately mortised to fit the top rail). Since it wasn’t certain how long it would take for someone to come curiously by, the carpet would be saved from staining with the inevitable drippings.

The knots in the purple rope were tied perfectly. On a nearby desk, a laptop computer was open to a web page with animated instructions for tying a variety of knots, including the necessary ones. The  video showing a bowline was still endlessly looping: rabbit comes out of the hole, goes round the tree, hops back down the hole.

The next tab marked a similar animation for the traditional hangman’s knot.

In the adjacent bathroom, more planning was evident. Two empty plastic squeeze bottles of saline laxative sat on the counter, likely administered so as to minimize the messy voiding of the bowel at the moment of death – which in the case of a hanging is particularly common, given the effect of muscular relaxation and gravity.

Also on the counter was an empty prescription container, filled the day before the incident, with sixty mild sedatives. Apparently, the plan included ingestion of the pills, which would be followed by unconsciousness, and the inevitable fall from the chair, at which point the rope would snap tight and perform its basic function.

The dark suit, white shirt and discreet tie were an unnecessary but tasteful flourish, which spoke well of further planning.

Little could be done about facial discoloration and the grotesque swelling of the tongue, but no plan can be perfect.

What was almost certainly unanticipated was the inexpensive Taiwanese steel that had been used to produce the eye-hook from which the purple rope was suspended. The cheap steel must have snapped shortly after the initial load was put on it. Shortly after, but not too shortly, as the purpose had obviously been accomplished before the final fall to the tarpaulin.

The other unanticipated factors were the two large cats, that over the course of several days, became increasingly hungry. Then, not so hungry.