“The days and months are passing; and the years do not wait for us.” — The Analects of Confucius, Book XVII (trans. Jennings)
“Be clear in vision, quick in hearing, genial in expression, respectful in demeanor, true in word, serious in duty, inquiring in doubt, firmly self-controlled in anger, just and fair when the way to success opens out.” — The Analects of Confucius, Book XVI (trans. Jennings)
“Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one’s faith, repenting one’s sins, and letting go of one’s worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence. These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition–advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn’t. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty–with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost. As for last words, they hardly seem to exist anymore. Technology sustains our organs until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence.” — Atul Gawande, “Letting Go”
Twenty years ago I began working in legal support, first as a data entry clerk and soon after that as a paralegal. The story I’m posting this week, “Legal Advice”, is written from my experiences in the trade. It was first published a half-dozen years ago in Ontario Review.
“There is no sufficiency principle, no ability to say ‘enough.’ Every last scrap of material, every last inch of earth, every last iota of human attention and experience, must become a commodity in order to feed the market maw. There is no other option. A system that supposedly embodies ‘choice’ in the end doesn’t give us any. The mechanism grinds on, out of synch with both the natural systems that sustain it and the needs of the humans who comprise it. ‘Prosperity’ becomes another word for ecological and social dysfunction, and a staggering increase in illth. This dysfunction is a daily experience for most of us. Yet for most economists it does not exist. In their view an increase of expenditure is by definition an increase in well-being, so there is no need to inquire further. To the contrary, problems make the GDP go up. Cancer begets costly cancer treatments; stress leads to the consumption of prescription drugs, and on and on.” — Bollier and Rowe, “The ‘Illth’ of Nations” (http://www.bostonreview.net/BR36.2/jonathan_rowe_david_bollier_economy_commons.php)
Words don’t often fail me. More often, I fail them. This week, I’m posting to this site a work of poetry I wrote six years ago, called The Book of Lamentations. I had previously published it to my Yahoo website in 2006, where I took it down after a week or two, and to my Joomla site last year, where I took it down after one day. It is a work which causes me discomfort. It will not leave me alone.
My background is military. I am an American. It is not my intention to make this website into an overtly political or topical site, but there were aspects of the American government’s invasion and occupation of Iraq which I found appalling. When George W. Bush and Richard Cheney were re-elected in 2004, I was moved to write what I thought would be a three- or four-page poem about the American servicemen and servicewomen, volunteers all, who were giving their lives in the conflict. I thought it would take, at most, a few weeks to write. It ended up taking nine months and going on for scores of pages. I stopped when I didn’t know what else to do.
“If no pure knowledge is possible in the company of the body, then either it is totally impossible to acquire knowledge, or it is only possible after death, because it is only then that the soul will be separate and independent of the body.” — Plato, Phaedo (trans. Tredennick)
Amtrak runs the Southwest Chief between LA and Chicago. Last week, Susan and I took it eastbound from Albuquerque. She was born and raised in Chicago* and we went there to be wed and to honeymoon.
(*Onion-town, the legendary, big-shouldered, fog-footed Kenyan capital of the glittering island kingdom of Kansas, where edible dogs are raised up to be served shoreside in deep dishes of Italian and other Slavic spices.)
It’s a twenty-six hour ride by train from Albuquerque to Chicago. Same amount of time going the other way. It is a pleasant and civilized way to travel in these terrified times, given that going anywhere in America by commercial airliner nowadays is to find oneself at that nexus where the axes of paranoia, learned helplessness, bald-faced greed, bureaucratic sloth and incompetence, and sadomasochism all meet. Amtrak, from the evidence we saw on our trip, is staffed by capable and committed people who are usually cheerful, sometimes cranky, always professional, and who work their asses off. The food is good. The trains run on time.
If you have to get someplace in a hurry, you have to fly, I’ll grant you that. I am grateful I don’t live the kind of life wherein I must fly the commercial airways. While there is something to be said for the exhilaration of take-off and the views from above, there is much to be savored in traveling overland. You get a sense for the vastness of the country when you cross better than twenty-six hundred miles of it by train. You get a sense for the people and the places where they live and work. You may find yourself taking notes and later writing a little something about your trip.
We saw antelope on the high arid grasslands of northeastern New Mexico, small herds of a half-dozen or so. One antelope who had become separated from the herd and was in the railroad right-of-way galloped madly along the fence line, looking for escape. Another, a buck, stood on a hillock beside the right-of-way and watched our train as it passed. In the mountains of northern New Mexico, as we crossed Raton Pass, we saw elk grazing by the tracks.
There were cattle. Cattle cattle cattle, grazing on ranges and in pastures across New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. Many, many cattle. Horses, too, of course, and a few goats. No sheep or pigs.
A notable number of farmhouses and houses in small towns in southeastern Colorado and into Kansas flew American flags from tall poles, as though the inhabitants sought to convince themselves and others that they really were in the United States. The inhabitants further to the northeast seemed to have a more relaxed confidence regarding their nationality.
We crossed Kansas largely by night. I caught a glimpse of the ghost of Dorothy walking the streets of Dodge City after closing time, her little dog in the basket she carried in her arms, their once-fertile farmlands devastated by overgrazing. Tears stained her dirty cheeks.
Outside Kansas City at night, by the tracks, a small building burned.
The parts of American life you see from a rail car (we had a compartment in a sleeper, and also spent time in the dining car and the lounge car) are somewhat different from the parts you see from an automobile on the interstate. There were many instances of what I came to think of as “shacks by the tracks.” There was much graffiti, some quite clever, in those places fronting the right-of-way and where the local graffiti eradication teams rarely go (they have enough to do in those parts of town where the graffiti is more visible). In some places, particularly in the cities, there was an immense amount of trash, usually of the metallic, industrial kind, in lots along the rail line. Only a wealthy country could have so much trash.
And it is a wealthy country. The immense, fundamental wealth of the farmland as we crossed Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois was ever evident. Toss aside all your pieces of paper claiming who owes what to whom, get down to the dirt, run your hands through it, and you will see.
There were many white clapboard houses. This may not be notable to persons from the Midwest who are accustomed to white clapboard houses, but in New Mexico where I live, they are much rarer. There were whole little towns in Missouri and Iowa where it seemed nearly every structure was of white clapboard. Some of them needed a fresh coat of paint, and some did not.
Susan and I, who have been together nine years now, married in a civil ceremony at City Hall in Chicago, in Marriage Court, Judge Williams presiding. We had dinner later with her family, up in Skokie. They are a warm, kind, and generous people. The weather was cold and rainy, but soon as it cleared up a bit, we went to the lakeshore and walked along the beach.
There could be more to tell, but for now, this is all.