Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Losers Weepers

Finders keepers.

It may be one of the very first unwritten rules that we learn. I learned it from a classmate in kindergarten. What looked like theft to me was, someone explained, actually fair. Somehow, the sing-song delivery of those magic words seemed to make the act of appropriation more like an innocent windfall rather than the more contradictory reality that it was.

The contradictory part is not omitted nor even disguised. Losers weepers pretty much says it all, but this we conveniently choose to ignore. The thrill of finding something overrides the certain knowledge that anything found must have been lost, by someone. Using notion that it was simply left there for us to take as a defense isn't even a necessary if we invoke the finders keepers rule. We can simply take. And we do.

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated with Egyptian antiquities. I won't claim to have been offended or in any way concerned with the ethics of archaeology or the provenance of art. I loved the gold and copper sarcophagi and the mummies therein. I spent hours staring the blue and gold scarabs, and golden treasures looted from the tombs of the Kings of Egypt.

But I didn't actually think of them as looted. I read the stories about the discovery of Tut's Tomb, and even managed to visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York during that King's famous road tour through the U.S. back in the sixties. Thanks Lynda.

It was Lynda who first informed me about the shady world of art collecting. One of her most beloved pieces of art in the world was actually a collection of sculpture fragments taken from the Parthenon in Athens. Known as the 'Elgin Marbles' after the British explorer who brought them from Greece to England, these are some of the finest examples of Greek art that we have in the world today.

Lynda, of course, had read a lot about the Elgin Marbles long before she lived in England. But one of her first excursions after arriving in 1975 was to the British Museum to see those statues. She often talked of the experience of seeing for the first time as being a very emotional and dramatic one. In spite of the fact that she was an abstract expressionist painter, she was deeply influenced by classical art of all kinds. Lynda loved art of all kinds. The Elgin Marbles just happened to be one of her first loves.

But Lynda also made it clear, whenever she waxed rhapsodic about these sculptures, that they were looted. She had to turn in some very tight circles to justify the looting, but she was enough of a realist to know that just because you 'own' something doesn't mean it's yours. Long before the talk of 're-patriating' art became fashionable, Lynda knew that someday the Greeks were going to come calling for their 'Marbles.'

As a student of art history, I too can turn in some very tight circles to justify my love for looking at things I probably shouldn't be able to see. It's too fascinating to turn away, so like rubberneckers at a crime scene, I leer and stare and soak up all the information I can. I am a part of the problem.

But, should we just stop archaeology? Just leave everything where it is? Return everything in museums?

Ok, so those are rhetorical questions. Suppose that the British Museum is seriously considering returning the Elgin Marbles. Would that make any difference? What about the Egyptian collection? The Sumerian stuff? Isn't everything in every museum simply looted or stolen?

The answer is yes. But are we seriously going to give all that stuff back? Not likely. To whom? No one knows.

Although the great age of museums is drawing to a close, even in response to the most dramatic weeping on the part of the losers, most of that stuff will stay right where it is.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Bright Line

I could see the line the instant I opened the door.

Even before I knew that Mr. ____ was dead, I could see that line.

Actually, it's not exactly a line that you can see, but I could feel it. I knew it was there.

It's the kind of a line we are all familiar with: the demarcation between where you are supposed to be and where you aren't.

Sometimes, that line is pretty clearly marked. We've got lanes that make lines and lines that make lanes. Lines are just a part of being human. We have ID badges and keys and entry codes for our homes and workplaces. We have secure areas, velvet ropes and 'extens-a-barriers' in just about every public place.

We make and mark lines in many places and for many reasons. Though we profess to hate them, we are more often secretly glad to know they are there, just because they are there to make and mark our place.

Often the line an actual physical thing, like the line in a restaurant kitchen, which divides the waiter from the cooks in much the same way as the swinging doors between the kitchen and dining room divide the waiters from the patrons.

Most times, though, the lines that make up our lives are not so clearly marked. These imaginary lines are no less important, however. After all, they serve the same purpose: separating those us us who are supposed to be here from those of us who are not.

The line at the nursing home is an invisible one.

As long as Mr. ____ was alive, I didn't give it much thought; I simply crossed that imaginary line when I entered the nursing home where he lived. At first, of course, I had to show my credentials--just the Hospice Austin badge with my name on it--to the nurse when I came in, but after a while, I grew increasingly comfortable with my reason for being there and the line grew less and less visible.

It didn't take long before I began to forget that the line was even there. Anything done often enough can become routine, even watching someone die. Thursday after Thursday, I simply stepped over it and walked down the corridor to Mr. ____'s room. My routine developed over eight months--from the time I started making my weekly visits until last week.

Last Thursday, it was different.

As recently as two weeks ago, Mr. ____ was sitting up in his wheelchair and still recognized me. Last Thursday, when I arrived around 4:30, he was lying in bed, looking very peaceful. His eyes were open but when I approached, he didn't respond at all. He was breathing steadily, as though he was sleeping. In fact, he closed his eyes after a moment to actually 'sleep'.

So, I pulled up a chair and sat with him as usual. I figured this might actually be the last time I would have this opportunity. I was surprised, therefore, when at 5 o'clock, one of the nurse's aides came in to say that she was going to get him up for dinner.

I asked, "Really? Is he still eating?"

She shrugged and said that it was the nurse's orders. I must have looked startled because she went off to confirm this with the nurse. In the meantime, another nurse's aide came in to wake him up. She called his name and he opened his eyes but made no sign of recognition. I asked this woman if she thought he could eat but she just smiled and shrugged. Then the first woman returned to say, while shaking her head in dismay, that she had to get him up for dinner.

They asked me to leave the room and I did. In fact, I went ahead and left the nursing home. Before I left the room I went over to the bed to say goodbye to Mr. ____ and though his eyes were open, he made no sign.

I couldn't help but question what purpose was served in waking him up and rolling him down for a 'dinner' that he was clearly unable to eat. While I erred on the side of caution by keeping my mouth shut, I still feel guilty about it.

My expectation proved correct, however. This past Tuesday, Hospice called to ask if I would sit with Mr. ____ during what they call an '11th Hour' vigil. This is where they ask volunteers to sit with the dying person till the very end. I volunteered for an 8am to noon shift the next day, Wednesday.

But, when I arrived Wednesday morning and opened the door, I saw the resident nurse's eyes and just knew that the line had been drawn. She told me what I already knew and I withdrew immediately, feeling more like an intruder than the regular visitor I'd been for the better part of a year.

In some ways, this loss of access made me sadder than knowing of Mr. ____'s departure. Without meaning to or even realizing it, I had begun to cling, as we all do, to that safe haven, that semblance of order and rightness in the world which we call a routine.

Though I will miss Mr. ____, I selfishly confess that it is the routine I will miss. It is that unquestioned access to his intimate space, the unspoken permission granted to cross that oh-so-private life-line that I will miss most.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Ode to Louis L'Amour (1908 - 1988)

The sound of the rifle bullet
missing its target
echoed through the hot dead air
trapped between
high canyon walls.

A jagged piece of stone
nicked Buck's ear,
but he didn't move.

The sun was relentless.

No wind stirred the dust.

Buck held his breath
and closed his left eye.

The bead on the end
of the barrel
of his Winchester
came into focus
and split second later,
the sound
of a second rifle shot
echoed through the
narrow arroyo.

For what seemed like an eternity,
Buck waited.

when his lungs were about
to implode,
a body fell from the cliff
on the opposite side
of the canyon.

Buck had killed a lot of men
in five decades,
but never
had it felt

He stood and
into the sun.

He spit into the
white caleche dust
around his boots.

For a long time,
he just stood there
and stared at the body.

A little crimson leak
appeared in the chalk white dust
below the dead man.

Buck thought
about shooting him again,
just to be sure.

Not out of fear,
just simple rage.

But even the heat
of that anger
could not diminish
the coldness of his desire
for revenge.

He had no need
to waste another bullet
even if
he could have summoned the will
for another shot.

The blue-black barrel
of his rifle
dropped to his side
as thirty years of hatred
from his shoulders.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Tie That Binds

Loki waits for me at the door, ready for our evening walk. He knows that's what we're about to do, because I just told him. He may not understand everything I say, but he knows when we are going for a walk.

He sits by the door, waiting for me to put his leash on. Sometimes, as I clip the red lead to his collar, I wonder if he resents it. After all, he loves to run on ahead whenever he's allowed to go for a walk without it. But, if he resents it, he certainly doesn't show it. In fact, it's pretty clear to me that he sees the leash for what it is: a means of communication.

When we first started walking together our communication skills were rather poor. Loki always wanted to go faster than I preferred to, or stop to smell something just when I had my walking pace set. He was forever tugging forward or or pulling backward. I was never really sure how to make it work, or for that matter, if we ever would. It seemed like I was only using the leash to forcibly restrain him. The rule, not the exception, was for him to constantly strain at the end of the lead, anxious for me to either pick up the pace or let him go.

Now that has changed. Of course there are moments when he has to be restrained a bit. Sometimes, his constant, in-the-moment way of being leads to a sudden lunge or stop, but increasingly, these moments are rare.

A walk today is a far different one that it was when Loki was a puppy. He no longer lunges ahead, or even strains the leash. I hold the loop in one hand and take up the slack with the other. There is no tension on the leash at all. Granted, I do have a pretty fast walking pace, but Loki has learned not just to slow down, but to pick up on just how fast I am walking and match that.

What has changed? Is it him or me?

Obviously, it is a bit of both. We are both a little older and a little wiser, especially about the role of the leash.

The leash, we both have come to realize, is more than a means of control. It is a symbol, not of my dominance over Loki, but of our partnership. When we go out for the walk, the lead is our most direct way of communicating.

This is sort of like the cheap walkie-talkies my brother and I shared growing up. They were useful for communicating within earshot only and we could never be sure if it was the walkie-talkie or just the sound coming through the air. While I can't be sure if it's just Loki taking his visual cues better as he gets older and wiser, it sure seems like there is some communication going on between us, and it seems to be happening literally via the leash.

I know this because there is a reciprocal element at work. That is, Loki senses how fast I want to walk but I sense the same from him. Somehow, we compromise. Sometimes, we go a little faster than I'd prefer, but not as fast as Loki would like. Sometimes when he wants to stop, I just know it and don't have to wait for him to jerk at the lead in order to get a good long sniff of something.

Human arrogance might lead me to think that the difference between now and then would be Loki. After all, he's grown up and has learned how to handle the leash. But I have to admit that I have changed too. I have learned how to hold the leash. What I once perceived as an instrument of control I see now as a means of communication.

And, what I am communicating is not what I want him to do, but quite simply, my state of mind. When I am relaxed, Loki can feel that. When I am willing to walk faster, Loki can feel that. When he wants to stop and smell something, I can feel that. When we come to a curb and I come to a stop to look both ways, he too comes to a stop and sits at my heel.

Now, Loki's learned a lot about what we expect from him, not just when he's leashed but also when he's not. Likewise, I have learned a lot about what he expects from me, especially when we are tied together by that lead.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Watch Your Step

No pain, no gain. It's a cliche because it seems so common sensible. Everything has a price; nothing comes from nothing. It's even a Law of Nature, right?

We all know that without risk there is no reward.  Even further, we are told, the greater the risk, the greater the reward.

Consider walking.  Is it risky?  Most of us don't think so, unless we are very young, very old, injured  or disabled, for whom the risk inherent in walking is anything but imaginary.  Even for the healthiest of bipedals, walking is among the most dangerous things we do, because the physics of walking is actually a process of falling and catching oneself repeatedly.  Because we walk so much, it seems safe enough, but we all know from experience that it only takes a single mistake to make clear the constant inherent risk.  You don't have to fall far to die.  One need not walk off a 400 foot cliff to tumble to one's death.  A six-inch curb or an icy bit of pavement can do the trick just as well.

But walking isn't really so dangerous, is it?  No, of course it isn't.  Even after just a few hundred steps, we rightly get the idea that what seemed dangerous at first is actually pretty safe.  The risk (death) is pretty low and the reward (getting somewhere) is pretty high.

The question is, though, is whether or not greater risk really does bring greater reward.

If walking is risky enough, why bother to run?  Well, one might need to escape from a bear, or to catch one's dinner. And, if some precautions are taken (like not running off cliffs or into trees), running is not much more dangerous than walking.   So running, even though it is riskier, is still considered safe enough to be worth the reward--staying alive.

But, to continue down this path, if the rewards of running are greater than the rewards of walking, can we continue to increase rewards by increasing the risk?  In other words are the rewards of running faster (racing) greater than merely running?

Clearly taking no risk at all seems likely to yield the smallest reward, but when the cost of the risk (death) exceeds the value of the potential reward (staying alive; eating dinner) we rightly pull back.  But if the potential reward is sufficient, will we simply tumble headlong into ever-increasing risk without stopping?

Surely there is a line, somewhere.

That line is are just as surely different among individuals--accounting for the likes of Eivel Knievel--but when that line does not involve physical risk but merely, say financial ruin, that line seems to be very hard to find.  Some people deliberately erased that line in their short-sighted and selfish pursuit of wealth before, during and certainly after the most recent financial meltdown.

The odd thing about this state of affairs is that we, as humans, are actually conditioned to minimize risk to the point where we can simply take it for granted.  While walking--even over level terrain--does in fact represent a real and tangible risk, in fact we know the process to be so easy and 'natural' that we don't really consider it to be risky.  That is till, say, we take a walk along a trail with a 400 foot drop-off to one side, cross a busy intersection in a major city, or step out onto that see-through ledge that juts out over the Grand Canyon.

So, paradoxically, it seems that in spite of our daily exposure to the most basic risk of all--death by falling--here we are, living in a culture that literally makes a profit on the fear of risk.  Today, it seems like risk--even the most mitigated and necessary--is to be avoided at all costs.

Boy, does it cost, and it's no wonder.  We are more than willing to pay.  For whatever reason, at perhaps historically the safest time to be alive, particularly in our culture, we want--expect, demand--guarantees for everything, from the material to the conceptual and we don't care what it costs as long as it's safe.

It starts with our products, things, of course--those objects over which we have the greatest personal dominion.  From these we expect the greatest 'unconditional' satisfaction or our money back.  In some ways this is good.  We really don't want faulty or dangerous products and have a good reason for not wanting to pay for either.

Lately, though, it seems like this demand for satisfaction (despite Mick Jagger's well known and even hum-able advice) has spread to other, less tangible but no less fundamental aspects of our communal lives.

The mantra is repeated often:  Everything must be made safe for public consumption.

The risk prevention component of our industrial complex is both pervasive and perverse.  Today, seatbelts, car seats, airbags, fire alarms, child-proof medicine bottles, flame retardant underwear and the millions of products (like useless stinky deodorants and deadly stinky air 'fresheners') are just the most visible of consumer products designed to take advantage of the most trivial and imaginary of personal hygenic fears.

Why is this so?  Despite our seemingly fervent desire to mitigate it, we are hardly consistent in our fear of risk.  In some cases, like the eating of lead paint and the breathing of asbestos, the risks are now so obvious--may I say even, so 20th century--that we take them for granted.

In other cases, like smoking chemical-laden tobacco cigarettes or the driving of automobiles, we have, for the sake of profit, actively denied the risks in the face of hard evidence to the contrary.  Who says cigarettes cause cancer?  Do people really die in car crashes?  Do bears really...well, you know?

At the extremes like this, in fact, it is clear that we have co-opted the most classic fears to serve the cause of consumerism.  But these fears are starting to seem, well, so old-fashioned.  It's time for some 21st century risks and fears, don't you think?

Not to worry, we've got plenty of good stuff to worry about in the new millennium, the Mayan calendar notwithstanding.  For example, these days, what's really troubling some folks is the fear of getting cancer from cell phone radiation or being stripped of all their possessions by the creeping socialist government that will surely emerge from the national debt.  Now those are some things to worry about!

Oh really?  Despite contrary stands on these 'issues' taken respectively by San Francisco and Fox and Friends, both of these fears are, in fact, imaginary.  The San Francisco city council and Glen Beck would do well to read Snopes.com on a daily basis.

I have trouble understanding politicians and pundits when they talk about mitigating the chances we are taking with our grandchildren's lives and livelihoods because the subject of their fears are not really risks at all.  Is our entire way of life really at risk because the government printed billions of dollars to give to the bank, airline and auto industries?

I have trouble understanding amateur scientists and Luddite alarmists when they talk about imaginary radiation and blithely confuse correlation with causation. Are our brains really at risk from the miniscule amount of radiation emitted by cellphone circuitry?  

I know some people think so.  But, what they want is really just a sure thing.  You know.  Risk free.  Big money, with no whammies.  Me, I am not so sure.

Considering that walking is likely as dangerous (or more so) than either foolish, spendthrift politicians or silent, irradiating cell phones, I can't help but thinking that we sure spend a lot of time worrying about all the imaginary risks in life when we are all taking real tangible risks with our lives with each step.

I say, quit worrying about radiation and socialism.  Watching where you put your foot next might just be the safest decision you'll ever make.