Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Top Winds Down

It has a lovely body, with legs so short and thin.
When it gets all tired, it drops and then I win!
Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, with leg so short and thin.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, it drops and then I win!

"What do you want to do today?" I asked Mr. Top last Thursday morning. "Die," he said. "Do you really want to die?" I asked. "No," he said quietly and uncertainly, implying that he did. We have run out of things to talk about over the past ten months, and I am not chatty. As family, my company is no longer terribly exciting. So we pass what meals we share in relative silence. I love it when enthusiastic visitors come. They lift his spirits. He soaks up energy from others like Sponge Tom Lumpy Pants. He loves people.

Mr. Top's legs are thin, though his belly lops down over his thighs, a belly that is now primarily extra skin, left over from weight loss, weight loss due to loss of appetite, loss of appetite due to loss of appetite for life, loss of appetite for life due to . . . loss, lots of it, over many years. And his dreidel of a body is lovely. It is almost 93 years old, exhausted and crippled, yet the skin under his clothes is smooth, and the gentle spirit this body houses ennobles his flesh.

I want him to have a stroke in his sleep, perhaps tonight, so he can exit this world silently and peacefully. But Mr. Top is tough, pound for pound one of the toughest man I have ever known, the equal of my own father, and my grandfather, Mr. Top's father. "I'm a tough little guy!" Mr. Top often says. He's right on both counts. He is a tough little four-feet-ten, 115 pound guy. And that toughness is working against him now. I am not so tough. What's tough is spending these difficult last days, weeks, perhaps months with Mr. Top as he fades and rallies. As a confirmed existentialist, I want his heart to beat every beat it can beat. Life, even a profoundly diminished life, is worth living . . . no? As a nephew who sees how difficult is is just to eat, I hope for that timely stroke.

When this dreidel drops I win some freedom. I will leave St. Louis for a different place, perhaps return to Santa Fe, Taos, San Francisco, or Denver, with no more responsibility for meals, appointments, hanging out, and shopping for another. I don't like St. Louis much, though I have met some lovely people here. And when this dreidel drops I will lose the last remnants of my father's world, a world I have always identified with. My son, daughter, and I will be the last Pattersons of this line. I find it charming that if another Patterson is born, he or she will be half Vietnamese. My grandfather would probably not have found that charming in the least, though I can't be sure. If he had the chance to meet Van, my son's wife, I think he would be quickly won over.

So, on that Thursday night, the day he said he wanted to die, he went to bed for four days. He had pretty much stopped eating a few weeks before. I was sure it was the beginning of the end. But it was more like Chief Dan George's death scene in Little Big Man.  Tuesday he asked to be gotten up and he had breakfast. The same on Wednesday. Yesterday we went to Red Lobster after an appointment with his dentist. We waited for our food and he said "Are there any Red Lobster's in St. Louis?" "Yes," I said. "In fact, we are in one right now." "Oh," he said. It took him ninety minutes to eat six tiny scallops. Yet today he has slept almost all day. Last night one of his outstanding caregivers, Nina, brought her new puppy with her. Mr. Top loves puppies. Who doesn't? She had named him Tom, after Mr. Top. Because she loves Mr. Top. Part chiwawa and part shih tzu, he'll certainly be tiny, and undoubtedly tough.

Mr. Top has a wonderful doctor, a dear and gentle fellow originally from Gatlinburg, Tennessee who just lost his own father. When we visited him Tuesday for a checkup he said to Mr. Top, in a direct yet loving way, "You are fading. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. I can't tell you how long you have got in days or weeks or months, but we will probably not be having a conversation a year from now. Be gentle with yourself, and do what you can to enjoy the days you have left." He was likely correct, and he could not have delivered the news with more tenderness. But no amount of compassion can cushion such news, even when you already know it. We want to die and we don't want to die. And Mr. Top, tough fellow that he is, and not really wanting to die, took it as a challenge, I think. He has since rallied. He has rebelled against this news. But it is news that ultimately will brook no rebellion. Not from any of us.

So, day by day, breath by breath, crime show by crime show, he lives. God, possessing a demonstrably ironic sense of humor, may deliver a heart attack or a speeding truck to take me out before be delivers a stroke to Mr. Top. That is certainly God's prerogative. But the Top is winding down. The dreidel is going to drop. And I will not win. There are no winners or losers in this game, only mortals.

Friday, March 7, 2014


There are perhaps billions of people with problems far more vexing and varied than I have, but I do grapple with one that I have faced as far back as my memory carries me: anxiety and depression. My parents, good for them, were complete strangers to this condition and, especially given the times, hadn't a clue why their son was so generally terrified, off kilter, and shy. I wish the reason for this had been genius, some deep hidden gift trying to claw its way through my cerebral cortex into recognition. But, alas, it was wiring. I was pulled from the womb screaming and clutching, and have never been comfortable outside of it. I'll wager I wasn't even comfortable in it--that unsettling swish swish of blood flow and the ominous thump thump thump of my mother's heartbeat, and that menacing rope extending from my navel that kept tangling up my arm so I couldn't provide myself the solace of a sucked thumb. It's wiring, circuitry, and a culture that understood none of this at the time, and is still struggling to come to grips with these strange differences in temperament and personality. Lots of people face these issues, and lots of people have found help through therapy and/or medication. Lot's of people are smart enough to stay on their medication.

Chronic depression is like an insidious virus that doesn't heal, only hides, and occasionally goes dormant. This is a lesson that I have had to learn repeatedly in my life. I was warned long ago, and more than once, by a therapist, that my disorder would almost certainly require treatment throughout my life. That in itself was depressing news. When I told him I wanted a second opinion he said, "Okay, sure . . .  you're also a moron." He had a point. About eight months ago I decided I was fine and put aside the Prozac and shelved the Klonopin. And I was fine, sort of, for several months.

 But here's the insidious side of this disease: when you have this kind of depression and begin to sink, you generally don't know you're sinking until you're drowning, and this can take weeks or months, death by a thousand cuts, the boiling frog, Hansel and Gretel nearing the witches house, the trail of bread crumbs eaten by ravens. When you forget what it feels like to feel okay, and you really do forget, then horrible becomes the new normal. When you find yourself reading the Wikipedia article on Ted Bundy and thinking of all the ways you are like him, you're probably in trouble (unless, or especially, if you really are like him). Aside from the name, and having studied Chinese, I'm not. I know that now. The most significant tell for me was that I quit writing. I quit writing because I came to despise my own voice as a writer. I came to hate my voice because of the other voices that returned in the back of my head continually telling me I was an abhorrent person in nearly every detail, and a fraud. This is the voice of depression. Medication is very effective at putting these voices in their proper place. This is not to say that my voice as a writer is unique or wonderful, but a writer, even a hack, must at least like his own voice, even if the masses, or in my case, my mass of two or three readers, hate it.

But being dependent on medication feels weak. Like most American men of my age I wanted to grow up feeling self-reliant, and as naturally at ease as Jimmy Stewart, as tough as Bogart, as brilliant as the great Professor Irwin Cory--the World's Foremost Authority (who will be celebrating his 100th birthday on July 29)--and, the strength of my father, who captained a submarine chaser at the age of 24. I couldn't even captain my hair at age 24, even though I was married and had a son. Self-possession, ease, confidence, ambition, achievement . . . these are all of the virtues I mimicked while secretly trembling inside and being consumed, bite-by-bite, by anxiety and self-loathing. Because of my spiritual training, I assumed this anxiety and self-loathing were the result of sin, and the answer was redemption and forgiveness. I learned the hard way, over time, that neurological problems do not have spiritual answers. Other things do.

This is only partially about happiness. Happiness is a wonderful thing and to be, as our Declaration reminds us, sought; but it is not our normative state. Life should encompass the full range of emotion at appropriate times and in response to appropriate things. Someone who is always happy (if there is such a creature) is as sick in his or her own way as the chronically depressed, though probably easier to be around, until you want to strangle them.

So, I offer this to those who may read it and who, perhaps like me, have strayed from what they know keeps them sane, if not deliriously happy. Life boils down to a few basic things, really: love life, treat others the way you want to be treated, stay in touch, do good work, be absurdly generous, don't take any wooden nickels, don't look into the mouth of a gift horse . . .  and all this is a lot easier if you take your meds.

Monday, January 27, 2014

International Approximate GOO Span, Yes!: IAGOOS,Y!:

This is a proposed constitution for a new anti-holiday; "anti," because it is not intended at all to be a holy day or holy week. Nothing holy about it. But it will be terrific anyway. It won't be long before it feels very holy, even though it is not. Not at all; unless by "holy" you mean "special, set aside, unusual, even numinous;" though there is nothing numinous about it. Not at all; unless by "numinous" you mean "very cool," and by "very cool" you mean "exceptional," and not "chilly," and by "exceptional" you mean "exceptionally good", not "exceptionally horrible," etc.


IAGOOS,Y! falls vaguely in mid February and lasts for approximately a week. There is no first day of IAGOOS,Y! or last day of IAGOOS,Y!. It is an entirely individual span of celebration. If you miss it, you can celebrate it next month, or you can get in early and celebrate it last month. But it is meant to be celebrated vaguely in mid February. There are no candles to be lit, vows to be made, rituals to perform, innocent vices to avoid, trees to be put up, or traditional animals to be slaughtered and cooked. There are no IAGOOSITES, there's no "Happy IAGOOS,Y!" or "Have a good IAGOOSY!" Their can be no "war on IAGOOS,Y!," no IAGOOS,Y! jihadists, evangelists, scholars, or fanatics; nor does IAGOOS,Y! need defenders. There are no IAGOOS,Y! scrooges, and there is no Father IAGOOS,Y!, no prophet, guru, leader, or holy man, nor "reason for the season," save the inherent, though often dormant, reason in the human heart. Nor is it meant to replace or critique any other holiday, even if it eventually does. We generally like our holidays and days off, and IAGOOS,Y! offers no such benefit. In fact, it might be best if the name of this anti-holiday were left unsaid, especially since there is no agreed-upon pronunciation; however, it must be pronounced if word is to be spread.


IAGOOS,Y! is the International Approximate GOO (Good of Others) Span, Yes! (the name is stupid, clunky, complicated, and contains an acronym within an acronym to make it difficult to refer to, because it is the humblest of anti-holidays) in which human beings, no matter where in the world they live, what their IQ is, how poorly or well they read or spell, what religion they practice or do not practice, how many worldly possessions they have, the size or existence of their bank account, whether they are regarded by self or others as a good or bad person, whether they are free or incarcerated, put aside all of these differences or misfortunes and choose to become profoundly aware of the existence of others, and manifest this awareness in some positive way. No particular act or series of acts is recommend. This is because it is entirely up to each unique, creative individual to be bold and innovative, humble and commonplace, anonymous or boastful in their acts. Every human being has some kind of gift or ability by which they can extend themselves for the good of others, or simply another. Commercialization of IAGOOS,Y! for the gain of any individual, business, non-profit, or government shall be met with universal indifference, and will result in no benefit whatsoever to the commercializing entity.

The goal is for everyone in the world to become aware, in mid February, that IAGOOS,Y! is "approximately" upon us, and determine to perform a positive act or series of positive acts performed in recognition that the good of others is a critical value we must recognize and promote if we are to continue in any way worth continuing as a species on this planet. As Auden put it in his poem "September 1, 1939," "We must love each other or die." True, he regretted that poem, and particularly that line. And it's certainly true that we shall die whether we love one another or not. But, still, love is a good thing . . . right? Even so, IAGOO,Y! isn't about feelings of love, it is about (non-sexual, unless the sexual act is truly one of love) acts of love.


  • The single purpose if IAGOOS,Y! is expressed in GOO, the acronym within the acronym: "Good of Others." It is an individual celebration that is not even remotely about "me:" not about "my" salvation, not about "me" giving thanks, not about "my" status as a mother, father, laborer, birthday boy or girl, or veteran. 
  • IAGOOS,Y! imposes no obligation upon anyone, rather it is a suasion toward universal other-centeredness. Though celebrated in mid February, the spirit of IAGOOS,Y! will eventually captivate the heart of every human being alive, in all (future) times and places, transforming human behavior, though the name will largely forgotten. And that will be a good thing.
  • IAGOOS,Y! is celebrated, well or poorly, by every human being on earth in approximately mid February, and lasts approximately a week, with no particular beginning or ending date, though it's celebration may be rescheduled, extended, or truncated by individuals for convenience or at whim. 
  • IAGOOS,Y! has no accepted or standardized pronunciation. Anyone pronouncing the name of this anti-holiday should be a little uncertain as to whether they are pronouncing it correctly, because they are not. There is no correct or accepted pronunciation. It is not meant to be said so much as practiced and forgotten.
  • Commercialization of this anti-holiday will be met with a universal, collective yawn, though its promotion is encouraged. Any corporation or commercial entity, even a non-profit entity seeking to gain publicity or advantage from IAGOOS,Y! will be met with utter indifference bordering on, but not quite reaching scorn. Anyone producing IAGOOS,Y! cards, celebratory meals, parties, or obligations of any kind shall receive utter indifference in return for their efforts. 
  • IAGOOS,Y! is a universal approximate anti-holiday and therefore it is neither the product of nor promotes any particular religion, political persuasion, philosophy, country, tribe, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, or species. 
  • When performing an act in recognition of IAGOOS,Y!, it's generally best, though not required, that IAGOOS,Y! is not credited or even mentioned as a motivating or influencing factor. 
  • Any act of violence, cruelty, unkindness, unreasonable selfishness, or neglect should, of course, be scorned and assiduously avoided during IAGOOS,Y!. 
Finally, you need not make any plans for your individual celebration of IAGOSS,Y!, though you may. Acts can be planned or spontaneous, as one suddenly realizes that the approximate season of IAGOOS,Y! is upon us. You are not encouraged to spread the word, copy and send or link this constitution to others (nor are you discouraged), though you are encouraged to begin, this February, or simply carry on, celebrating IAGOOS,Y!.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Error ID:500.300588

As I write, I am waiting for a "representative" to help me finish submitting my application for health insurance on I don't really know why I'm doing this again. It is the cliched definition of insanity; but if I'm insane, I'm also out of luck. I don't have healthcare coverage. I've been trying to do this for a month. I have completed the application process several times. The plan I picked out looks both good and affordable; but every time, at the end, when I submit it, I get the error message. I have followed every boilerplate instruction I have received from both the "chat representatives" online, and the ones you reach by phone. They are the same people, using the same boilerplate. Why am I calling yet again? What makes me hope I'll get the magical enlightened representative who has actually helped someone through this error message? Only that I need insurance, and because if I'm without insurance after the March 31 open enrollment period, I will be in  violation of the law, and open enrollment will shut, unless it won't, or unless they give a break to those of us held captive in cell block 500.300588.

After a fifteen minute wait, I'm now talking to a representative. I give her, as I have so many others, my information, so she can look up my account, see the problem, and give me the boilerplate response. The chat people tell you to call the phone reps, and the phone reps tell you to talk to the chat people. Oops. We are mysteriously disconnected. I promise I wasn't rude or angry. What's the use of that? These are just ordinary people who got a job manning the helpline; people who were handed a manual from which to glean simple responses to ordinary questions. Apparently my question is extraordinary. Except, judging by my online research, there are thousands of others struggling with the same extraordinary problem who have received the same message: "Sorry, an error has occurred. Please try again. If that doesn't work, log out. Error ID:500.300588" Oh, I have logged out, and in, and out, and in, and out; and never have I had so much in and out with so little pleasure. And I really wish that last statement were true.

I call back. A twenty minute hold for a representative. We start to go through the drill: name address, date of birth, social security number . . . but this time I ask for a supervisor. Sure, I can talk to a supervisor, but I'll have to wait.

Forty minutes later, the supervisor greets me. I can hear the PTSD in her quavering voice. Clearly this woman has spoken with many pissed off insurance seeking people who were made angry and abusive by ERROR 500.300588, and her inability to do anything about it. She's probably sorry she took the job. But I'm not her therapist. I'm not even a therapist. I'm just a guy who had been trying to apply for health insurance for what seems now like most of his life. I have already invested more time on this project than I have every other insurance need in my whole lifetime combined. I have already spent more time on this than I did getting my undergraduate degree, and . . . nada, bupkis, zero, no coverage for you! But I'm not angry. Where would that get me? I might just punch a wall and break my hand. I'm not insured. The emergency room visit would bankrupt me.

We go through the same drill. I answer all the same questions. "Yes. Yes. No. No. Patterson. November 1, 1953. Yes, No. No . . . " I explain the problem once again. I am given the exact same suggestions I was given before. Finally I say. "You can't really help me with this, can you?"

"No," she says, "I'm sorry. Please don't yell at me."

She didn't actually say that last thing, not with words anyway.

Today was the deadline for a policy to go into effect on February 1. What's another month without insurance, so long as I don't lose my temper and break a hand, or no one commits me to an asylum? I am a prisoner of Error ID:500.300588. Error ID:500.300588 is preventing me from getting health insurance, and there is not a damn thing I can do about it. I asked: not only does no one know how to correct ERROR ID:500.300588, they don't even know what it is or what it means. This makes me laugh. it also makes me very angry. I want to punch a wall. I want to go strangle someone, but I'm not in very good shape. I'd have to choose someone old and weak to strangle, or very young and weak. Even then, what if they get the better of me and rupture my spleen with a violent kick to the chest? What if they see me coming and shoot me (I am, after all, in St. Louis)? Or I have a heart attack while attempting the strangle? I'm uninsured. They might be too. They might be fellow 500.300588ers. I might be strangling a comrade.

Maybe you're ready for me to now rail against "Obamacare," but I'm not going to. Without the Affordable Healthcare Act I simply wouldn't be able to get insurance. I feel very lucky. Now I can not get insurance with the Affordable Healthcare Act. This seems somehow much better. Maybe next month, or next year. Hey, in five years I'll qualify for Medicare! I hear that works pretty well.

The roll out of this program gave ammunition to people who say things like, "What are the eight scariest words in the English language? I'm from the government. I'm here to help!" Ammunition? Hell, they turned over an entire arsenal. Some of my best friends say things like that. Some of my friends who say things like that receive a lot of help from the government; some even work for the government and have good health plans. I'm just glad I have some friends. Some of them are very good friends. But if I need another back surgery, none of them will be offering to pay for it, and because I've already had two, before the Affordable Health Care Act no insurance company would cover me individually. I work for myself. Now I'm part of a very large group. There are some 314 million of us. And if they ever get ERROR ID:500.300588 figured out, well, damn, I just might get me some health insurance.


1. Pay attention to who or what is right in front of you (unless what is right in front of you is a laptop or a mobile device).

Mr. Top will take more time studying a portion of waffle, then lifting it to his mouth (with great difficulty), then chewing and swallowing it than most of us spend looking into the eyes of and listening to those we live with. This is not because he has a waffle fetish, or a feeble mind. It is because his life has been reduced by age and physical challenges to a very few and small things. I have known people, as you probably have also, who under similar circumstances decided that life was no longer worth living, and let go. Not this fellow. I think Mr. Top probably always enjoyed studying the last bit of waffle on his plate, yet he once had other concerns as well: a wife, a daughter, and, for the briefest of moments, a granddaughter (both mother and child died in childbirth when he was already old--he became a father later in life); he also belonged to clubs, had hobbies, traveled, and associated with many loving friends. He could not have known that a bit of waffle would one day be a major companion; but cultivating the ability to notice, study and enjoy the simplest things has proven to be both enriching and lifesaving. He even studies his pills, one by one. Eight every morning.

Life, for him has been reduced to these ostensibly unimportant things; yet, for him, these few things are a window into the whole of life, the rest of the universe. They are the stuff of his life, and because he values his life, he values them.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
         --from William Blake's poem "Auguries of Innocence"

Many of his younger caregivers are obsessed with their mobile devices. I am too. My business keeps me on the laptop for hours at a time. But what we see on these devices is far from what is in front of us.

2. Say my name.

Mr. White had to demand to be called Heisenberg, which, of course, was not his name (Breaking Bad reference, for non fans). If Mr. Top has met you once, you probably won't have to ask him to say your name. He both remembers it and will say it to you. I have been places with him where he has amazed me by calling someone, an assistant, an orderly, a waitress, by name and saying, "It's nice to see you." And, for him, it is indeed very nice to see them. For them, well, it is often apparent that by noticing who is right in front of him, he has helped to make someone's day. He has forgotten a good deal about his own life, but if you have told him something about yours, he remembers it. In detail.

And you will remember him, not because he demanded that you know his name, but because he remembered yours; not because be demanded respect, but because he gave it. And because Mr. Top is a hard name to forget.

3. "Oh, how nice. Thank you."

The health care workers who work with Mr. Top love him. This is partly because he is sincerely and constantly courteous. You can put the most commonplace lunch or dinner in front of him and he will often say those very words, and mean them. If you cut a large bit of waffle in half to make it easier for him to stab with his fork and put in his mouth, he will thank you. He will then study the two halves and consume them. Then he will study the crumbs, and consume them. He will thank you if you warm his coffee for the sixth or seventh time.

If, during the summer, you take him to the bathroom and he notices the air conditioning fan is running (you can hear it in the bathroom) he'll explode with anger. "Shut that damn thing off!" If you accidentally change the channel on the television, you may incur his wrath. I don't know why--a longstanding habit, I guess. When he explodes, the sparks dissipate instantly, and there is no shrapnel. It wasn't personal. When you turn off the fan he will thank you. When he is safely out of earshot, you will turn it back on (this is, after all, St. Louis); and if you forget to turn it off before he passes it again, he will explode again in precisely the same way.

4. Laugh, sing, and forget yourself.

Mr. Top is ready to laugh, and he is ready to tell you a joke for which the punch line, or the setup, is a distant memory which he can't quite access. But he'll laugh at it anyway, and you will, too. There was the one about Franklin D. Roosevelt and something about digging him up to run for president again. I got the idea, anyway. He can be witty, but he especially appreciates your witticisms. He'll make you feel both funny and clever, though he doesn't seem to care whether you think he is funny or clever.

If he thinks of a song, he'll sing it, anytime and anywhere--all the better if you know the song and sing along. His father was like that, and his brother, my father, was like that in spades. It made me cringe at times. I'd give anything for another opportunity to cringe at such a joyful thing. I wouldn't. I'd sing along. Years ago, my father sang unashamedly and at the top of his lungs "You are the sunshine of my life . . ." as my wife, my son, and I boarded a jet bound for Taiwan for an extended stay. If his brother and father had been there, it would have been a trio. I hope to be a member of a quartet in heaven.

5. Even a profoundly diminished, limited life is worth living.

Mr. Top has to be washed, put to bed, and gotten up in the morning, by others. He literally can't even wipe his own ass. His right arm is all but useless, and he was very right-handed. His legs left him long ago. He feeds himself, very, very slowly, with his left hand. A small, ordinary lunch often lasts for hours. He spends his days watching, sports and crime shows on television. I'd probably rather die than spend my days like that; but he'd rather live to enjoy whatever small pleasures are left to him, like a trip to the barbershop to see his old and long-time barber John, whose handlebar mustache Mr. Top loves and looks forward to seeing as much as he does John. John ribs him about being rich and kids him about being written into his will. Mr. Top laughs and says "No." in a charming way that makes you feel like he said "Sure." He enjoys, but does not expect, visits from extraordinary friends, like Harry and Nina, who come almost every Sunday to sit with him for a few hours, or watch a ballgame; or Bert who comes from across the street to eat ice cream and joke with him. Susie, who has worked the overnight shift for his health care company for about two years now, is his favorite "visitor." She is gracious, kind, and attentive. Around seventy herself, she moves slowly, and notices small things, like he does. She both looks and sounds like she could be Morgan Freeman's sister (not an insult. She is quite lovely). He always seems happier to see her than anyone else.

I wish I had more examples of Mr. Top's activities, but that about covers it. I believe the appropriate cliche is "The secret to happiness is not doing what you love, but loving what you do." He does very little, and the little he does is tediously commonplace and simple. But he is happy.

I've known him for a long time. Over the years I have seen him be argumentative, petty, greedy, and insensitive. These things have not defined him. They were, perhaps, among the first leaves to fall in the autumn of his years. What remains is patient, loving, kind, and gentle . . . good fruit.                       
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine . . .
He who respects the infant's faith
Triumphs over hell and death.
The child's toys and the old man's reasons
Are the fruits of the two seasons.
I won't deny that Mr. Top was gifted with good thread, a nice disposition, and a certain innocence. We are not all thus gifted, and every disposition has its place and purpose. Nevertheless, no matter how we are threaded, it never hurts to try on another approach to life, or practice a new virtue. I am blessed to be attending this aging seminar. While he studies the waffle, I study him. It is sometimes said of someone displaying excellence that they are "putting on a clinic." Mr. Top is putting on the end-of-life clinic.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Gracias, Grazie, Merci: Fide Mea

In case anyone cares, or I have given them occasion to wonder: I love god, and I love life with all my heart; and I am profoundly grateful for my path, my opportunities, my losses, and the wisdom born of my experiences. I am grateful for you, your path, your opportunities, and your wisdom. All the weirdness, doubt, and anger I express are done so from the hollow of the hand that sustains me. Sure, sometimes I bite that hand, but the callouses from bring bitten (well deserved, I might add) are so thick upon that hand that mine are hardly felt, and, I'm sure, instantly forgiven, if even noticed. How do I know this? I don't, I just believe it. My belief is born from the same intuition that tells me that I am loved, and that you are loved, and that every life ever conceived  upon the earth is somehow loved, no matter how brief, how ostensibly meaningless, truncated, tragic, or brutish. And may we all dedicate ourselves to making other lives less so.

I could be wrong, and this could be pure sentimentality; but I'm sure I will die believing it. And to die believing this will do me and others no harm, and maybe some significant good along the way. I believe that the greater part of life is random. I have been blessed beyond what I deserve, beyond numberless people more deserving than I. This has been a random assignment. I blindly drew a long straw, and there was no reason for it or to it. All I can do to make up for this is to be aware of it, conscious of the lives and needs of others, and open to helping where I can.

Well, this is the season for sentimentality. It is very difficult to escape. I've never (in my adult life) been a fan of Christmas, or at least the way our culture responds to it. But I'm a fan of life: yours and mine. May yours be especially blessed, and may you have strength to endure the losses, the brutish parts, and the sorrow, and strength to exult and rejoice in the blessings and joys that will come as well. And may we all be given vision to see beyond our circumstances when we need it the most.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Jesus and Santa

Jesus is a mythical character. This should be an uncontroversial statement. I'm not saying he didn't live, I'm not even saying he wasn't the son of God. I'm not saying anything about that. However, whatever Jesus was actually like, what he really did, and really said, he quickly took on mythical status, during his lifetime, and certainly very quickly after his death. What are the mythical elements? The alleged foretelling of his birth, birth from  a virgin, the healings, the exorcisms, the miracles, the ten thousand angels he claimed he could have called to save him from crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, sending the Holy Spirit and distributing post resurrection spiritual gifts to his followers. These are mythical events.

Santa is a mythical character. I'm not saying St. Nicholas of Cusa didn't exist, that he's not the patron saint of sailors and lost children, or that he didn't move to the North Pole, buy a red suit, gain weight, and get the whole Christmas thing going. I am saying. however, that he is suspiciously like Jesus. In fact, I'm thinking Dan Brown should get going on this one: The Christmas Code.

First off, they were both bearded, swarthy Mediterranean males (Yes, Megyn, there was a Santa Claus, and he was swarthy) who actually lived but took on mythic proportions. One said you had to become like a child, and said "let the little children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of God." The other lets us bring our children to him to sit on his lap to ask for things. They both live in inaccessible places, one in heaven, one in the North Pole. They both know who has been naughty or nice, though one of them only punishes naughtiness with coal; the other one lights that coal and roasts you in it for all eternity if you don't accept him, though I'm thinking he probably got over that since he moved to the North Pole. He needs that coal to stay warm.

Both men have extraordinary powers of visitation: Santa can receive the requests of every child on earth, and visit them all in one night. Jesus said, wherever two or three of you are gathered together, I am in their midst." They both promise action: Santa brings what you ask for, and Jesus said "you may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."

One has innumerable elves working for him, the other claimed he could have called 10,000 angels to rescue him from the cross. Did these angels, post resurrection, move with him to the North Pole and get busy making toys? Were they trying to somehow make up for not saving him? I'm just asking. Jesus had twelve apostles to help him spread his message, Santa has nine reindeer that help him spread his cheer. I'm not sure how the apostles were transmuted to reindeer, but it's clear that three of them refused. I'm thinking Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, and Philip, or maybe Skip, the latecomer replacement for Judas who clearly didn't know what he was getting into.

Jesus miraculously descended into hell, rose again, and ascended into heaven. Santa descends down the hell of countless chimneys, climbs back up, then ascends into the heavens in his sleigh. Jesus promised to return. Santa actually does return, every year.

Jesus commanded a commemorative meal of bread and wine, Santa requires milk and cookies. The bread and wine transubstantiate  into Jesus' body and blood, and transform his followers into his body; the milk and cookies are transformed, through the miracle of digestion, into Santa's mythic shaking belly.

Santa, says "Ho, ho ho, merry Christmas!" Jesus said "Woe, woe, woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees;" however I believe he grew tired of pronouncing woe. No one really wants to be to be a woe pronouncer. Why? Obviously, because no one likes a woe pronouncer. But a "Ho, ho, ho!" pronuncer is an entirely different kind of pronouncer. A horse of a different pronouncement. The kind of pronouncer everyone likes. Everyone, except Uncle Scrooge. But even he was converted in the end, as will be all Jews when they get sick of dreidels and Hanukkah, and Muslims when they get sick of those Pillars and all that fasting during Ramadan, and Jehovah's Witnesses when they get sick and tired of never, ever celebrating one damn, freaking thing. We'll all be Santaclausians one day.

I put all of this to a therapist friend who suggested that what we have here is a mythic case of PTSD. "This Santa-Jesus," she said, "is annually reenacting his traumatic earthly existence, obsessively, in countless chimneys, with countless glasses of milk and plates of cookies  . . . giving, giving, giving, then giving again; and eating cookies over and over and over until he loses those cookies, somewhere over Northern Canada, until he's actually a black Santa from all the carbon in all of those chimneys [Yes Megyn, there is a Santa Claus, and he's entirely black by Christmas morning]. He can't help himself. You see, when mythical characters suffer, it takes on mythical proportions. They work it out in and through another myth; and it can take many, many centuries."

It will all work out. I'm sure of it. Merry Christmas.