Monday, June 28, 2010

On Luxury

As I got out of the shower a week or so ago, somewhere between the pleasure of the deliciously warm and wasteful ablution to which I had just been treated, and the comforting experience of the soft and fluffy towel that soothes my skin, I was--as I always am-- for a moment possessed of a profound sense of gratitude. In this state it occurred to me again--as it has many times before--that this experience, the hot shower plus the fluffy towel, is perhaps the greatest luxury known to man.

From this simple thought, born of simple gratitude for a simple experience, much more thought has been given in the ensuring weeks. Many questions have arisen, most of them centered on the notion of luxury but the experience itself provides context for the notion and so demands some examination as well.

Who would have thought that simply taking a hot shower could be so complicated? After all, it is just a routine experience, something I do every day. Further, it is a routine experience for many people--millions even--in so-called 'civilized' societies, especially in my own peer group of aging American 'baby boomers' living in small houses in subdivisions all over the country. So it is such a common experience, how can it be considered to be a luxury?

What is luxury? Is it simply the opposite of need? To be a luxury, must it be something that is unnecessary? Or, is it possible that even a necessity, such as food or water, could be considered a luxury? Is a physical state, or a state of mind? Is it relative, to others, contemporaneous and historically?

These questions are only in the back of my mind to begin with, for as I towel off, it sure does feel luxurious.

But is it? For one thing, I find it limiting to define luxury so narrowly that it becomes merely the opposite of necessity.

Well, it certainly feels luxurious, having just used more fresh water to rinse refined petrochemicals off my skin than many people will see, let alone drink this whole week.

But, there is more to it than that. Part of our internal psyche is tuned to acquiring and using more than we absolutely 'need'. The drive to seek out comforts and pleasure in addition to needs and wants is fundamental. Nowhere is there better evidence for that than in the advertising that shapes our external world so often. We are enticed by luxury homes, cars and lifestyles. We are told that we are entitled to these things, and this way of living.

It certainly feels like I am "in the lap of luxury" as I wrap myself in the cotton picked and woven by virtual wage slaves in third world countries. It certainly feels luxurious to savor the warmth of who-knows-how many kilowatts of energy that were used to wash and dry it after I used it the last time.

And whether manipulated by advertising or not, I certainly feel entitled to these things. After all, I reason, I pay for the water and the towel and the electricity and the home in which they are all collected. Doesn't that mean that these comforts are earned, deserved even?

Historically and contextually, luxury has had many meanings in many places and times. Though I have given it much thought, and subjected too many of my friends and family to too much conversation about it, I can only conclude that luxury is not rigid nor well defined.

It is for me the sum of experience and a state of mind.

Friday, June 18, 2010

We're so sorry, Uncle Tony

It was an emotional moment for BP Chairman Tony Hayward yesterday as he tearfully accepted Texas Congressman Joe Barton's heartfelt apology for the "tragedy of the first proportion" that had been perpetrated on his company the previous day by President Obama.

While many of his fellow Representatives prepared to blast the giant international petroleum company's embattled president, Representative Barton courageously voiced what many--if not most--Americans were secretly thinking as the innocent corporate executive was being led to a rhetorical slaughter.

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” Barton said in his opening statement. “I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown — in this case a $20 billion shakedown.”

A cautious collective sigh of relief could be heard across the country at these words, beginning with Representative Barton's esteemed Republican colleagues sitting with him on the committee. As the ranking Republican, it is his moral duty to speak up and from the heart; to say what is on his mind, for it is surely on the minds of his constituents as well as most Americans. And, in the thick of the fight, despite irrelevant questions about his connections to big oil, Congressman Barton found the resolve and courage to do his duty.

The pride that most American felt at this profound expression of their deepest sympathies was immediately diminished somewhat by strident cries of discord from the small minority of citizens--not all of them actual Americans, it will be noted--who happen to live in the Gulf area.

Despite the best efforts of elected Republican officials such as Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi to assure the public that nothing more than a few tar balls were actually washing up on the beaches of the Gulf, his calm and reflective message was unable to counter the excessive and obviously hyperbolic claims of a few hysterical shellfish farmers and fishermen.

Also, in spite of Barbour's informed insistence that these intermittent tar balls were "nothing more than we usually see around here" angry residents continued to complain not only that they were being innundated with oil, but that comments such as Barton's and Barbour's did nothing to help them.

Conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank spokesman Ritch Wright disagreed with this assessment, noting that it was the resident's excessive reaction to a minor incident that was actually exacerbating the situation. Worse, he noted, these whiny citizens were totally missing Barton's patriotic point.

"Messing with corporate rights is generally regarded as un-American, at best, and downright socialist at the very worst. You see," Wright explained, "Polls show that American may indeed not like a few tar balls on their beaches, but what they like even less is when somebody messes with their corporate rights. It's clear to us that this is just the opening volley in Obama's overt attempt to render this country into a completely Socialist regime. That's the "tragedy" that this "shakedown' represents."

"It starts by taking away the rights of corporations to do what they need to do," continued Wright. "Shackling these industrial giants, controlling these powerhouses that drive our economy and make it possible for us to have second homes, extra cars and boats by actually regulating them will only diminish us all. Look, if a rising tide raises all boats, then a lowering tide lowers all boats. "

Wright paused, then pressed to his logical conclusion. "All we are saying--all Congressman Barton was saying--is that we have to be respectful to the corporations who have brought us all such unprecedented wealth and prosperity. "Dance with with who brung ya" is the saying in Texas, and God bless him, good old Joe Barton is doing just that."

Wiping away tears in the Congressional hearing room after hearing Barton's sincere apology, Hayward allowed himself a small smile of gratitude as he said "Thank you." His smile was short-lived, for he knew that Barton's was the only kind voice he would hear that day, and possibly for many more days to come.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


It's at times like these that I do not know if what I am doing is the right thing or if it even has a value.

I am sitting with Mr. _________ at the nursing home. I am sitting in his walker/chair, which he has never used in the several months that I have been coming to see him. It's odd because other than this walker/chair, the big high-backed wheelchair that he is usually sitting in when I arrive, there is only one place to sit, a great big faux-leather easy chair. It's over in the corner, facing away from the bed, and far too big to drag around the room, so usually I either kneel down near his bed or pull up the little walker-chair so I can face him and be near enough to him to talk, if he is awake.

Today, I am facing the bed. He is sleeping on his side, apparently because he has developed a bed sore on his lower back. This happened to Lynda too.

He is sleeping fitfully. He moans every so often and leans over as if to touch someone--his dead wife, no doubt--by holding up his outstretched arm with his other hand, like a kid in class waiting to be called on.

Then, he suddenly drops his arms and begins breathing deeply and heavily, almost like a death rattle. I saw this pattern with Lynda. She lingered in this state for a number of weeks, and it looks like it's going to be the same for Mr. __________.

This place, this 'nursing' home, is infused with waxy, chemical-laden air. Presumably it fights off the odors of excrement and old age, but in fact it simply overwhelms my senses. It often takes me two or three hours to clear my lungs of the air and my mouth of the taste.

There is television on in the room across the hall. There is always a television on, somewhere, in this place. The volume is pushed up to the maximum and the sound of an advertising jingle spikes into my consciousness.

"You know when it's real," I hear them sing, in a subliminally intentional plaintive double harmony.

Yes, I guess I do.

Here is what is real: Mr. __________ reaches over for his dead wife again, then digs at the sore on his back. I am only two feet away; I see and feel his unconscious desperation to be rid of the pain as if it were my own. I feel his desire to be restored to his lover. I grieve for his life, for whatever it may have been, and for what it has evolved into with this soft cycle. I know, even if he doesn't, that this state is--this will be--the rest of his life.

He knows. He's ready to move on, no doubt about it.

What can I do about this? If I were but the Angel of Death, I would call this man home. But I am no angel, of any sort. I am merely a witness to the end. I am merely a observer. I am not even a hand to lift or guide him, but a mere listener. I am but a place for the sound of his rasping breath to be absorbed.

Is that enough? And, if it is so important, why didn't I do more of it for Lynda? It is it really enough to go and sit with him for just an hour every week, doing nothing more than reading and meditating?

Perhaps it is. If anything, this experience with Hospice is teaching me to be more forgiving of myself and caregivers in general. Obviously, there are limits to what any of us can do. I certainly don't blame Mr. _________'s daughter for not being there all the time. In fact, I consider it a privilege to be permitted to come sit with him.

Is it enough? I don't know for sure, but for now, it will have to do.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fresh Today

Moving targets
are written large
in a moonless sky.

There are no breakers
the stillness wiped away
the sweat
the meat
the flesh is fresh today.

Don't look up.
Don't walk this way.
Don't drink up
What's washed away.
The fish
the flesh is fresh today.

Monster of Mine

Why so sad,
Monster of mine?
Have you lost me?

Have you not enough rage
to tear me apart?
Ah, are the sorrows
Has my laughter
weakened your resolve?

But your strength is famous
legendary, fierce!
Yet you fail
to set up upon me.
Are your teeth dulled by
old age?

Come, chase me
into the dark.
Afraid I will turn on you?

Oh Grendel, are you so old
that my defiance
will hold?

Or, am I
just stronger
than you imagined?

Lying in wait, all this time,
you thought I was getting weaker,
but the fear you smelled
was your own.

Without fear
there is no chase.
The hunt is
just a kill.

Why so sad,
Monster of mine?

You have lost me.

Friday, June 4, 2010

My Week

I bet on Monday.
but Tuesday won.

I cried on Wednesday
for Thursday's son.

I lied on Friday
about Saturday's fun.

I died on Sunday
My week is done.

A Kindle Review

As both readers know, I have recently made the dive into the world of e-books. For one thing, I have bought a Kindle, so I have been reading a lot more, and a lot more widely than I have since college.

I will say right away that I love it. There are many reasons for this, most of which have been written about so much that it sounds like an ad for the Kindle, and doesn't really bear repeating.

However, I will say that one thing I like best about the device is the fact that I can browse the bookstore at my convenience and download samples to my Kindle for later. It's like going to the bookstore, picking up all the books that look interesting and taking them home to read the first chapter or so before sending them back.

There are some drawbacks to this device as well.

One thing I don't like about e-books in general is their homogeneity. All books look the same. Now if you are really concerned with the content, it might not seem to matter, right?

In fact, one of the main ways that I keep track of what I've read turns out to be by remembering which book I read it in. And remembering a book is more than simply remembering its contents.

In many ways, the physical cues that are associated with a book help my brain keep the information that I gain from it distinct from information I've gotten from other books. This process sounds almost medieval, but in fact, it's the way that my brain has been programmed. Remembering the book itself is sort of like a shorthand, an easy way to mark content mentally so that it's easier to retrieve and make use of later. A lot of times, I have 'forgotten' the contents of a book, only to 'recall' them later when I pick up the book and turn it over in my hands for a minute.

There is no such luxury with the Kindle. Oh, you can go back and find that book, but 'handling' it won't evoke any thoughts, since they all now 'look and feel' the same.

This isn't a huge problem, but it does affect my thinking. For example, now I am often faced with trying to remember just where I read something, and all I can recall is the e-ink. Since I love to read on various subjects--like politics, history or economics--all at the same time, I have trouble remembering just which point was made by which author and in which context. In fact, the e-ink removes so much of the context that my thoughts seem the only things stitching this content together.

It is true and well known that the physicality of books provides a great deal of pleasure for readers. What is also true but less well known is how the physicality of books helps us store and sort the information contained therein.