By Fred Owens
This week’s issue of Frog Hospital is a little different. It is long for one thing, and it is inspired by the writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard and his six-volume novel, My Struggle.
It was Harvey Blume of central Cambridge who encouraged me to read My Struggle. Agent Blume, as I call him, thought I might learn something from this renowned Norwegian writer. Yes, I am inspired by the work and this week’s issue shows the influence of Knausgaard.
I am a chameleon when it comes to writing. I tend to absorb the last author I read and certain styles carry over subconsciously. I read Hemingway, then I write like Hemingway, or Nabakov or Bellow, but not just quality writers, I am influenced by the dreariest and most common place of authors. It can’t be helped. I run an open shop.
This week it’s Knausgaard
Monday morning. I got up. I put on the coffee. I went out to the driveway and picked up the newspaper. I noticed the air was a bit foggy and cool. I went back in the house and cleared the cat litter box, then I turned on the TV for the morning news. I kept the volume down low because we have a new housemate and the sound of the TV might disturb him.
I emptied the dishwasher. I try not to clatter the plates when I do this first thing in the morning. By now the coffee was ready. I took the rubber band off the furled newspaper and stuck the rubber band in a plastic bag in the tool drawer.
I glanced at the front page of the newspaper. I decided to skip that part and go to the sports section to read about the US Open. The golf story was interesting. I checked last night's scores for the Dodgers and the Angels, then I skipped over to Dear Abby and the funnies.
By now the coffee was ready. I poured a cup. I like it black.
I looked at Facebook on my iPad. Mitch Friedman was posting photos of his roots journey. He -- and I assume his wife -- has been to Athens where they stayed in a hotel with a view of the Acropolis. He posted a selfie with the ruins in the background and my first reaction was -- how heavy the stones!
My years of gardening in New England have altered my perception. In New England I wrestled with large and small granite stones and rebuilt the old stone walls. Stone upon stone, and so often I thought of the ancient ruins --- the castles, temples and pyramids -- huge stone-works built by massive manual labor.
If I spent a day or a week moving stones then I appreciated how much work it was for ancient men, toiling up the hill with marble slabs to build the Acropolis so that we, the heirs, might pose for selfies in 2017.
There was Mitch Friedman, at the Acropolis, among the Greeks.
Mitch Friedman is scarce of hair on the top of his head, so he shaves it proudly bald and smiles lightly. I know Mitch from his old days in Earth First!. The year was 1988. The month was January, when we resisted the loggers at Fishtown Woods. Mitch and his Earth First! cohorts -- I always resented their interference in what had been a moderate and local protest. But why didn't I say something at the time?
And why say anything now, 29 years later? Mitch and his group coordinated the protest and mass arrest at Fishtown in 1988. Later he lived in Bellingham and made a good living as a promoter of wilderness preservation.
Now I see him on Facebook, howling with wolves or catching a Seahawks game in Seattle.
Or in Athens, on the balcony of his hotel room with a view of the Acropolis.
The thing is, when I saw his photo standing proudly in front of the ancient stones, I was happy for him. I was glad that he made this life journey, even though I might not ever get there myself.
I am so commonly envious of other people. Why did Mitch Friedman become a successful and well-known environmental activist? He saved the wilderness in eastern Washington. He spearheaded the introduction of wolves to that area. He went to court and won. He organized hundreds of donors. He led petition drives. He left the notoriety of Earth First! And put those radical days behind him. “I’m being reasonable now. I accept moderation and gradual change.” He re-shaped his image in that way.
I envied his success. If people ask, but nobody asks, what have you done to save nature? When I hear that I start to voice a rasping scream, an inarticulate wordless moan, a string of obscenities. Even now as I write this, my breathing gets heavy.
I did as much as Mitch Friedman ever did. I know it, but I can’t prove it…. I guess I am over that now, almost over that anyway, because when I saw the photo of Mitch in front of the Acropolis I smiled and I was happy for him. He deserves that pleasure.
I remembered my Greek teacher in high school. His name was Father Ryan, a young man, barely thirty, not tall, of a slight torso, neither clumsy nor athletic. He was our Greek teacher for two years. He only had wisps of grey hair on his head, and except for those wisps, he was totally bald. It was cancer of some kind and chemotherapy for treatment, but they never told us what it was and we never asked. Sometimes Father Ryan would lay his head down on the lectern in the middle of his lecture – just lay his head down for a few moments and gather his strength and then carry on. This was 1963 and 1964. We didn’t ask questions about his health, but we learned the Greek and we read Homer out loud, words as ancient as the stones on the Acropolis.
I still have the Greek books. I guess I didn’t need to make the trip to Athens. I carry it in my soul.
I’m sitting in the living room waiting for lunch. I told Laurie I would eat at one p.m. so I have 15 minutes to go. The big window is open and so is the front door, the breeze is easy. It is not as hot as they predicted --- meaning here in Santa Barbara. For some cruel reason I am monitoring the temperature in Phoenix. You can do that on the Internet. Just type in “Phoenix temperature” in the Google search box. It says 113 degrees at noon. And you worry about power failures when it gets that hot, and some old woman living in a small cottage and the power goes out and the AC shuts down and she suffers through the heat of the day – 113 degrees at noon means even hotter by 3 p.m.
I am sitting on the couch and the laptop is on the coffee table. Laurie is in the far back of the yard picking plums, little hard purple plums. I pruned the suckers off that tree two years ago, but I haven’t gone back there lately. I volunteer for garden projects when I can think of easy jobs that will make her happy. Like hedging the Indian hawthorn by the driveway – that hardly took 20 minutes.
For lunch I will fix myself an open-face liverwurst sandwich, hold the mayo – just bread and sausage. I have been enjoying liverwurst on bread since I was a small child. My mother sometimes took me to the butcher shop on Central Street in Evanston, back in Illinois. You had to drive down Prairie Avenues to get there from our house in Wilmette. Drive down Prairie Avenue right past Uncle Ted’s stucco bungalow. Only we never stopped to visit Uncle Ted. I just knew he lived there with Aunt Bee and their three children who were much, much older than me -- so much older than me that I classified them as adults and not fun.
We drove down Prairie Avenue to the butcher shop on Central Street. The butcher would give me a small slice of liverwurst as a treat. Usinger's Braunschweiger -- that was the brand name. I always like it. I still do.
I will fix the open-faced sandwich for lunch today and that will finish the 8-ounce package that I bought last week. With that sandwich I might eat a small fresh tomato on the side.
This is where Laurie and I differ. She would carefully slice the tomato and put it in the sandwich. I don’t do that. It gets too messy. You get a fresh juicy slice of tomato in your sandwich and you hoist it up to your mouth – and then the juice squirts on your shirt. It’s not worth the risk. Better to have the tomato on the side and cut wedges and spear them with a fork -- and be sure to lean over the plate when you hoist it to your mouth. This is a way to keep spots off your shirt, something I learned recently, the part about leaning over the plate, rather than leaning back in the chair.
Eat the sandwich and the tomato wedges, but then think about eating one or two small, juicy almost-overripe peaches. White-fleshed peaches from Hugh Kelly’s back yard garden.
Hugh has gone to England for a month to visit his family and I water his plants for the one month he is away. And I may was well pick all the peaches when I come to water – either me or the squirrels.
Hugh pays me $50 for the vacation watering service. I do gardening work for about a dozen customers near our house. It sounds peachy doing garden work for friends and making a little cash to boot, but I don’t like doing the work very much. I’ve done too much gardening and farm work and yard work over the years. I’m not too old for the work. That isn’t it, but I’m getting bored with it. Losing interest. I love my customers – they are the best people ever, but I would quit tomorrow if I could find another source of income. I imagine myself taking all the hand garden tools out of the trunk of my car – shovels, rakes, pruners, loppers, hand saws, trowels, tarps – all that stuff. I imagine taking it all away and putting it into some storage locker somewhere. And I don’t pull weeds anymore. Maybe never again or maybe not for a long time, like a year or so. I imagine myself taking long walks across fields and forest, hand in hand with Laurie, looking at birds, only there is no work, just the walking.
Cataracts. They want to fix the one in my right eye. Didn’t say anything about the left eye. I do have two eyes. Pre-op consultation should clear that up. Dr Katsev wields the knife. A strange man is going to poke a knife in my eye and they call it routine surgery. Katsev takes a casual air. I said you must be good at it. He said I do about 20 a week. The clinic website says he has worked there for more than 25 years and he is chairman of ophthalmology. Technically, intellectually, this is all above board. Everybody does it.
Why don’t I do it, but next year, not this year? I can’t drive at night, so what!
Laurie says why not do it now, this month. Get it over with.
I filled out the pre-op form. Did I ever get hepatitis? (among a hundred other questions) Yes, hepatitis A in 1973, from drinking bad water in Nuevo Leon in northern Mexico. I remember the well, in the back yard of a peasant home, the well and the home a hundred yards off the highway that went from Laredo to Monterey. We pulled off the road and asked the residents if we might spend the night. They said fine and we drew buckets of water from the well.
Something about that well wasn’t right. Too shallow, to close to the house. The air was fetid. Tortilla Tom said it was okay, but he said everything was okay. Eva said we are as good as the people who live here and if they drink this water so can we. Tucson wondered where he could bum a smoke. Fat Tom went off in search of beer.
We drew the water, started a fire, put on a pot of beans and just sat around or stood around. It was getting dark. Mexico wasn’t as pretty as we expected.
Later Fat Tom came riding back to our camp in the back of a pickup truck – two federales coming to check us out. Pulling the truck up too close to the fire, getting out slowly.
We didn’t move. They said Hi, where are you going? -- They spoke a little English. We’re going to Oaxaca. We’re cooking beans for dinner. You want some? The cops looked around and nobody moved. They started to smile. They walked back to the truck, threw off the burlap sack covering a rack of cold Modelo beer, enough for everybody.
Fat Tom had a big smile now. I love Mexico, he said. Hey, Maria, how do you say that in Spanish? Mexico me encanta! she cried out, and she began to sing. The night passed sleeping under the stars.
But the water from the well was not good. Too natural, to use a term. I got the hepatitis A from that well water. Ended up in a hospital in Mexico City one month later. I liked that hospital. They fed me well and let me rest. A clean bed, a TV, a pretty nurse.
But I had resources. The same privileged resources I have had all my life, right up to today, getting cataract surgery at Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara. My regular doctor is a good-looking young man -- Dr. Bryce Holderness got his degree from the University of Southern California medical school.
I filled out the rest of the pre-op form. No other surgeries, or broken bones, no strokes, angina, endocrine disorders, blood pressure -- actually blood pressure is not so good and I take a pill for that every morning. The pill must be good, because it only costs $9 a month. My health insurance does not cover prescriptions. So for $9 a month it keeps the blood pressure within range.
Cholesterol? Nature blessed me. Basically I have a license to eat mayonnaise.
Anxiety? Yes, I take half a pill PRN. I can get nervous. I can get nervous at times when I used to get angry. Only I am too old to get angry, so I get nervous instead and take the pill.
This goes back to the garden work and the field work. It can be very boring and hot and sweaty and it takes no mental skill for field work. But when I was younger and I was working out in a field, you start to get angry and you’re out in the middle of the field -- there is nobody to get angry at. They aren’t there – the people you’re mad at, except for Pedro working 20-feet from you nearby, only you’re not mad at him.
You get mad at the field itself? Mad at the soil and stones? Kick the stones, the stones don’t care……. No, the stones do care, but they say to be calm.
After breakfast I went out to the driveway to wash my car. My car is parked these past few days in Julia’s spot under the pepper tree. There is a hierarchy of parking places here. Laurie gets the cement paved driveway. The two renters get the off-street space, but graveled, not paved – Julia is under the pepper tree and Ryan is under the jacaranda.
I park on the street uphill from the mailbox. Mariah parks on the street downhill from the pepper tree. Gavin, who is here temporarily, parks wherever he can.
It all works out. But I am in Julia’s spot today because she is gone to house sit for her brother who lives across town. So I pulled into Julia’s spot because it is flat and off the street and I can damp-wash my vehicle.
I drive a black 2004 Nissan Sentra -- bought it five years ago for $5,800 – never a problem, but it has one of those lousy Japanese paint jobs, all mottled and disparaged. I hired an artist to paint acrylic flowers over the discolored parts, so my car is like a moving mural. I can send you a photo. People tell me all the time how much they like it. Well, I run a gardening business, painting flowers on my car is a way to advertise. Not my name or phone number – just the flowers.
Being that the flowers are only painted on with acrylic and beginning to flake off, I can’t run my vehicle through the car wash under those big scrubbers, so it just kept getting dirtier, until I realized I could damp wash it in the driveway. Three gallons of water, three clean rags, 30 minutes. Just wipe it down and wipe it off and wring out the dirtiest rag. Then get a second bucket full of water and use the second rag for finer work, and then the third for the final touchup.
Easy, peasy, Japanesy – that’s what the librarian said in the Shawshank Redepemption. I hate it when a phrase like that gets stuck in my head. I did not choose to remember that phrase. I would like to get rid of it, but it is probably lodged in there forever.
Like the names of my grade school teachers. I can recite them Kindergarten through 8th grade. But in that case I am glad to remember those names and I even wrote them down for the archives.
But the memory is scarred with trauma – horrible burning events that get buried deeper and deeper but can never be --- there is no verb – can never be erased, eliminated, deleted expunged – there is no verb because it is not possible.
You can force the memory down deeper in your subconscious. Bury it. That’s why they ancient Egyptians built the great pyramids --- huge piles of hewn stone symmetrically arranged. The purpose of these pyramids is to bury something -- we cannot say what. Some terrible, scarring memory is buried under the pyramids and will never come to light.
Nothing is ever forgotten. It is all stuck in your brain somewhere, in the lower drawer, under the cobwebs, in the basement.
People say I have a good memory. I recall details of events that happened long ago. I dwell on the past. I love the past – that’s where all the good stories are. I love the history of all people. I brood over my own life. Often I wake up at 5 a.m. when it’s still dark. I emerge from a deep sleep and my mind begins to stir. I will my mind to stop working. I tell myself, “Don’t start thinking. There is nothing to think about. Go back to sleep.”
But I start remembering older years, very often 1993, when I had the corporate driving job for Boston Coach and Fidelity Investments. I drove a spanking new black Buick Park Avenue. I took business executives to and from the Boston Airport. I spent hours crawling through rush hour traffic, but I was getting paid by the hour, so I didn’t care.
But what bugs me in the memory, the part I wish I could forget, is the cheap, black polyester pants I wore every day. Why didn’t I spend another ten dollars for good pants and get all –cotton which is far more comfortable? Instead I was itchy in polyester and it was my own fault. All day driving in itchy pants.
My life would be different if I had bought more comfortable pants. That small memory haunts me, and a million other memories that I will bury under a pyramid in the back yard as soon as I collect enough stones.