"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Friends And Toys–Collect Them, Use Them, And Discard them

Hamilton Kellogg collected people like children collected toys.  He had wind-ups, battery-powered, radio-controlled, and plug-ins.  He had action figures, statuettes, and dolls. He was excited to find a new toy, someone who brought something new and interesting to his life.  He spent increasing amounts of time with them – discussions over coffee, long walks on the canal, beers at O’Reilly’s – until he had found out what he needed to know and then, when their motors started to run slow, when the battery casings became corroded, and when, finally, they stopped working, Hamilton tossed them in the toy box.

Hamilton grew up in a small town in Connecticut and led an uncomplicated life – middle class if not bourgeois, the son of a doctor and a housewife, schooled appropriately and well, and then launched on a predictable post-Ivy League career.  He was a member of the Country Club, had a low handicap, was jovial and accessible, and as he entered his 50s knew that life was good.  He was happy with his life’s trajectory, even though he was at time anxious about its lowering apogee and wondered where he would come down; but he was never depressed or even depressive, never failed to open the windows wide and let in the sweet scent of the apple tree in the garden

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As he pushed farther along, he began to become irritable and scratchy.  He didn’t seem his old, happy, and congenial self.  He was clipped and often nasty to their friends, barked at his wife over nothing, and found himself distracted and uneasy at work.  “I have seen the light at the end of the tunnel”, he said to his wife one morning, “and it is going out”.

Randy Mittens had been a lifelong friend of Ham’s, had been a successful litigation lawyer who defended large corporations and public agencies.  He had helped Walmart win one of the early suits brought by the labor unions, and in a well-publicized case defended the City of Charleston against the Police Benevolent Association which was demanding reparations for an unfortunate incident that had killed five of their members.

Five years ago to the surprise of his colleagues and Board of Directors, Randy took early retirement.  “What are you going to do, Randy?”, asked his eager and well-meaning friends.  After such an intense and committed professional life it was hard to imagine Randy doing anything but standing up in a courtroom and denouncing plaintiffs with an excoriating, withering logic and wit.

“I don’t know yet”, he replied.  “All I know is that I do not want to die in my traces.”

Although neither his wife, nor his children could pinpoint the moment when he became a passionate defender of the Bay, but however it happened he turned into an environmental zealot.  There wasn’t a blue, rockfish, or croaker he didn’t worry about.  When the waters of the Bay warmed slightly, he wrote big checks to the Environmental Defense Fund and Save the Bay.  They were so delighted with his financial support and so impressed by his quick mastery of the issues of the Bay that they invited him to speak at their fundraisers.

Randy noticed the light at the end of the tunnel just like Hamilton Kellogg did and realized that without more kindling, tinder, and firewood it would go out.  Of course it would have to flicker and die one day, but under his custodial care it could burn for years.

Religion never excited Randy.  He listened to the fire and brimstone sermons of Father Brophy ever Sunday, but twiddled and fidgeted until the Offertory when his parents felt it acceptable to leave the hot, airless church.  Neither his father or mother were at all spiritual and attended St. Mary’s more out of a sense of decency and a show of propriety to maintain the family’s reputation in the small town than out of devotion or belief.

When Randy started looking about for ways to stoke the fire, religion provided no fuel.  Nor did community service, volunteerism, or teaching English as a second language.  Like for so many people who are searching for a spiritual lift, it came unexpectedly in the person of a sweet young thing who rang his doorbell to collect for PIRG – a pure water advocacy group.  She was ingénue and innocently beautiful.  She wore her hair short and clipped like Theta Bara and had the actress’s allure and mystery.  She could have sold him anything.

Five years later when Hamilton sat down to coffee with his friend at the Pain Quotidien in Spring Valley, Randy started banging away about the Bay.  This time it was the salinity, and if it kept on increasing, it would be the end of the striped bass and the oysters at the mouth of the Rappahannock. As Ham’s eyes glazed, Randy’s burned with a fiery light.  He gestured wildly, rolled his eyes back in his head, paused for a moment to pick at his crumb cake, and continued feverishly.  “The Bay”, he started, but could not continue.  He was choked up and garbled and spat his words.

Hamilton knew that this was the last time he would see his friend.  His circuits had gotten scrambled, his wiring frayed, and the spasmodic synaptic firing of his brain had fried it.  He tossed Randy Mittens back into the toy box and forgot about him. He had learned about obsession, spiritual vacuity and refill, and our compulsive desire to derive meaning out of life.

One by one Hamilton tossed his friends into the toy box along with Randy Mittens. He had no use for Billy Barnes who had found religion and couldn’t stop hammering on about Jesus.  His understanding of faith and religious expression was deepened, but after a while he had learned just about all he needed to know.

Henry Arthur had become a fitness freak, and worked out at the gym seven days of the week, pumped iron, maxed out the machines, and spun his cardio off the charts.  He got the same weird fire in his eyes when he started to talk about his heart rate, lung capacity, muscle tone, and something called ‘isotonic impulse response’.  It became clear to Ham that his friend had gone totally off the rails and felt that if he kept up this punishing regime, he could live forever; or if not forever, at least to 120.  Ham always listened patiently to his friend, stopping him only now and again to ask questions about routine and performance, or to get clarification on one of the many technical terms that defined Henry’s workouts.

After a while Ham had learned as much as he could from his friend.  He deepened his understanding of our fear of death and our illogical and yet persistent belief that we can outsmart the Grim Reaper; and marveled at the many unusual and inventive ways we chose to do it.  So Hamilton Kellogg tossed Henry Arthur in the toy box along with Randy and Billy Barnes.

His wife asked him what happened to his friends.  Had he offended them or they him?  Was there something he wasn’t telling her?  No, Hamilton replied.  Nothing like that. “They simply got used up”.

Despite the jettisoning of one friend after another, Hamilton was as attentive to his wife as ever.  He told her he loved her, and listened patiently to her problems – although fortunately hers revolved around upholstery, leaks, and begonias and nothing existential.  She was the only constant in his life.  He knew it and loved her for it.

One day Hamilton realized that he had cleaned his Augean stables. Nothing remained of his friendships, acquaintances, and relationships in Washington.  He felt good about it.  There was something enervating about old, familiar, and predictable friends, and without them he felt cleansed and renewed.

“It’s time for a new chapter”, he told his wife. “I am going to Three Corners, Arkansas”.

She was not exactly sure how or why he had chosen this small town in the Arkansas delta pop. 8500 not far from Helena and the Mississippi River; but supposed it had to do with Harold Carter, the retired Poet Laureate of the State who ran a writers’ workshop, amateur theatre, and dance company.  Carter would provide a familiar and comfortable center for Hamilton’s life – an intellectual point de repère as the French call it.  A place to return to.  A focal point. A center from which one could explore the unknown without losing one’s way.

Hamilton met people in Three Corners that he never would have met in Washington, DC. Black people, for example.  The relations between the races was nowhere near as poisonous as one was led to believe in the North, and there was an easy congeniality and affability that characterized them.  Hamilton met white and black truck drivers, shopkeepers, hair dressers, and factory workers, all of whom were open and refreshingly eager to talk. People were tight-lipped and tight-assed in Washington.  No one gabbed or kibitzed at the gym.  Block parties and neighborhood picnics were nil. Doorbells never answered except by prior arrangement. 

Worst of all, everyone whom Hamilton met or even could meet was cut from the same cloth.  If not Ivy League like him, then Duke, Kenyon, or Carlton.  Not the top schools, but far from East Arkansas Community College where most people in Three Corners had gotten their education.  All his neighbors in DC were professionals – lawyers mainly who worked for the FBI, Homeland Security, or the Department of the Interior; but also World Bank, IDB, and ADB executives and managers.  Hamilton knew that each one of these bureaucrats and civil servants had their own unique life story, but the likelihood of it falling off the familiar Washington trajectory was small.  Most people got launched from the same place.

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